Charming, peculiar, and occasionally ingenious, "Howl's Moving Castle" tilts between fantastical beauty and philosophical pondering. Its resistance to settling for one or the other only enhances its appeal. While it is plainly designed for young viewers, it also poses difficult questions, framed within kids' limited contexts. Unexpectedly, this framing only makes the questions seem more significant.
Loosely adapted from Diana Wynne Jones' children's fantasy novel, Hayao Miyazaki's new animated film features yet another serious-minded girl. Her name this time is Sophie (in the English language version, voiced by Emily Mortimer), and she begins the movie as an 18-year-old hat maker in some vaguely familiar but undetermined past -- maybe 1940s, sort of urban and early-industrial, during what seems an endless wartime. The titular castle demonstrates the oddness of the moment perfectly, a rickety, clanking and whirring contraption that literally walks about on four spindly metallic legs, clambering across mountainsides and into meadows, and, when directed by a color-coded dial by the front door, landing in various exotic locations.
The owner of this sweetly "contraptionish" domicile is Howl (Christian Bale), a wizard who bears a terrible curse: his heart has been sucked out by a witch. Endeavoring to redress the lack in various ways, he alternately flies off to fight good fights and picks up strays to man the castle in his absence. These include a friendly fire demon named Calcifer (an overbearingly jokey Billy Crystal: "He burns me up!") and young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson). The latest addition to this crew is Sophie herself, though not in her original form. Cursed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), she's now a 90-year-old woman (voiced in this form by Jean Simmons), unable to identify herself or name the curse, which drives her to leave her mother and sisters (and their haberdashery) and wander the Waste in search of a cure.
Here she's kind to a lonely, turnip-headed scarecrow, who bops about on his pole, raggedy arms and legs flopping every which way as he leads her to the castle, depositing her at the door in mid-clanky-step. Feeling inclined to mother the lost souls she discovers inside -- namely, Howl, Calcifer, and Markl -- Sophie also rediscovers her own youth, idealism, and sense of adventure, revealed as she plays Wendy to these Lost Boys.
Whenever Howl flits through the household after a night or maybe a week out gallivanting with monsters and warriors, his crew rushes to tend to his needs -- food, bath, heat. What he will learn, of course, is that his primary need is love, and that Sophie is more than willing to grant him. This in part because she spotted him when she was living in a young body (their brief association was the cause of her curse, the Witch of the Waste being jealous of his interest in her), and in part because she comes to appreciate his tantrums and despairs as signs that he needs her, despite his wizardly haughtiness.
Summoned to the palace by the king (or more precisely, the king's sorceress, Madame Suliman, voiced by Blythe Danner), Howl is supposed to offer his service in the interest of the current war project. But he wants a way out of this duty; he's not precisely a conscientious objector, as his conscience seems to have gone the way of his heart, but he does perceive war as a generally bad idea. And so he devises a plan by which Sophie will play his mother and essentially plead his case before the court.
Though Howl promises to accompany her in disguise, in fact, it's hard to tell whether he has held to this word or not, and so she's left to her own witty skills and generous spirit, for a moment, anyway. Her approach to the palace turns into a bizarre contest with the Witch of the Waste, who also wants favors from the sorceress.
The extended sequence of two aging female bodies lumbering and puffing up a gigantic staircase hardly seems the stuff of kids' animation, but the very peculiarity of it makes it seem to fit, or really, not fit, as the movie is really a hodgepodge of misfit moments and characters, only occasionally coming together in any conventional sense.
While keeping track of who's cursed whom and who is disguised as what can be confusing, the movie helpfully arranges its pieces as if there are two recognizable forces pitted against one another (at least temporarily): the war-making king and the well-meaning but childishly petulant Howl. Sophie helps to sort out his bad behavior, in part by forgiving and looking after him along with all her other freely adopted charges.
Her own transformation also becomes something of a puzzle as, in the film's later stages, she's shifting between forms -- young and old -- as she's shifting places, shifting understandings, and coming to terms with her dedication to Howl, even when he's unpleasant. The embrace of such unconditional love appears to save them both, but at the same time, it exposes them to a range of emotions and desires for which they're not quite prepared.
Like Miyazaki's previous, famously delicate inventions (2002's "Spirited Away", 1999's "Princess Mononoke", and 1984's "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind"), "Howl's Moving Castle" is alive with nervous energy and unsettledness. These jittery-edged images conjure lovely rhythms as they approximate children's perspectives, rendered in visual images (lots of low angles and dreamlike movements) and irresolvable questions. Challenging the very concepts of war and revenge, "Howl's Moving Castle" remains restless and unsettling even when Howl's castle has stopped moving.