Susan Granger’s review of “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Walt Disney Studios)
If you were enchanted by Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” you won’t want to miss this brilliant director’s latest animated feature, already one of Japan’s most popular films. Inspired by a novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, it’s basically an antiwar allegory that’s perhaps too complex to appeal to American children accustomed to clear-cut heroes and villains. But it does celebrate the power of love and the resiliency of the human spirit. Set in a fictional city, the story centers on a roguish young wizard, Howl (voiced by “Batman” Christian Bale), and his attempts to avoid being drafted to fight in a war. Within this, there’s a timid, teenage hat seller, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who’s caught in the middle of a romantic feud between Howl and the jealous, conniving Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) and transformed into a 90 year-old crone (voiced by Jean Simmons). To attempt to lift the curse, Sophie heads for Howl’s pulsating, anthropomorphic, Monty Python-esque castle with its birdlike legs powered by a fire spirit named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal). Howl agrees to help Sophie if she will pose as his mother to convince Madame Suliman (voiced by Blythe Danner) to exempt him from war duty – until Howl learns to overcome his own inner demons. Miyazaki drenches the screen with the hand-drawn, idiosyncratic, sophisticated magical realism that springs from his boundless imagination, along with Grimm’s fairy tales and “The Wizard of Oz.” The race between Sophie and the Witch of the Waste is delightful. Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney’s Rick Dempsey do the English-language vocal directing. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a beguiling 8, a visually fanciful diversion.