I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful!" declares dashing, vain young wizard Howl (Christian Bale), bereft that his hair has turned from blond to a hideous orange.
"You think you've got it bad?" asks his endearingly lumpy housekeeper, Sophie (Jean Simmons). "I've never once been beautiful in my entire life."
Actually, Sophie was prettier than she knew before the jealous Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) mistook her for one of Howl's many fleeting crushes and transformed her from a young maiden (Emily Mortimer) into a bent, baggy crone.
But a funny thing happens to Sophie on her way to settling scores. The resigned girl who labored selflessly in a hat shop turns into a take-charge gal when she becomes the caretaker for Howl's moving castle - a magnificent gimcrack contraption that leaps on chicken legs through the countryside. And whenever Sophie acts with passionate resolve, she regains her youthful looks, for minutes at a time, and with a sparkle she never had when young.
Howl's Moving Castle is one animated epic that has it all: poetic intensity, potent storytelling, vivid and surprising characters, and intoxicating powers of visual imagination.
It's rare for a cartoon or a live-action feature to meld action and metaphor with such galvanizing fullness, but the masterly Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, who won the best animated feature Academy Award in 2002 for Spirited Away, achieves it every time out.
Set in an imaginary early-20th-century Europe spinning with dueling wizards and witches, Howl's Moving Castle, a free adaptation of British writer Diana Wynne Jones' enchanting 1986 novel, plunges us into life during wartime. Miyazaki fills the streets with jingo- istic crowds cheering on colorfully clad soldiers who strut with a modified goose-step. Aviators guide aerial kayaks or predatory birdlike fighter planes through the sky; bombers circle like flying whales crawling with barnacles; one horrendous yet magnificent battleship is part metallic blimp, part scorpion.
Magicians who act as if they're capricious gods let their passions rule the puny fate of mankind. The Witch of the Waste adores lusty young men like Howl. Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), the chief sorceress for the King of Kingsbury, has never forgiven Howl for not completing his apprenticeship with her. She will not rid him of the curse that catalyzes his wanderings unless he swears allegiance to her king.
This universe puts everything at play - all three dimensions, the elements, geography, history and time - but especially the human heart, and mostly Howl's. A seductively contradictory character, Howl steals women's hearts because he has no heart of his own. Contemporary psychobabble would label him a commitment-phobe, but Sophie sees him whole. "He may be selfish and cowardly, and sometimes he's hard to understand," she tells Madame Suliman. "But his intentions are good. He just wants to be free." What gives Howl's Moving Castle its elation and its sting is that Sophie loves him without any hope that he'll return it. He makes her grow young; she makes him grow up.
The mobile castle, fueled by Howl's fire-demon sidekick Calcifer (Billy Crystal), is the wizard-prodigy's ultimate instrument of escapism - but also his home-away-from-homelessness. On the move it can look like a mobile hill with multiple cottages built into its sides, or mashed-together astronomical observatories overrun with flora, or an amalgam of tank turrets and cannon stations. Yet it has the time-space power to drop into a seaside village and become a cottage-like magic shop, or into a city street and become a workaday wizard's storefront, and then still roam back into the Waste.
This magical-mechanical wonder has animal features: many eyes, ears and noses, and a fishtail. After a kayak crashes into it, it seems to be sticking out its tongue. Inside Calcifer keeps it warm and Sophie, a sometimes overly assiduous housecleaner, keeps it cozy. The interior is small-scale, yet full of marvels. There's Howl's cave-like room, full of charms and gewgaws, where he repairs after nights spent as a warrior bird, or even a winged monster. Before long the Witch of the Waste, aged even more than she aged Sophie by Madame Suliman, and an unfailingly kind turnip-headed scarecrow, help Howl and company form a functional alternative family.
Using hand-drawn animation (except for specific effects in a fraction of the shots), Miyazaki achieves a peerless fluidity. His images spring straight from his imagination, and his imagination has a direct connection to eternity. All the lead characters are changeable, including the most subtle and sly dog in movie history, a low-slung canine who starts out as Madame Suliman's spy and ends up in a better place. They're all part of Miyazaki's vision of life as movement.
Howl's Moving Castle is about the necessity to keep moving until you know, in your soul, when you've found the right place to stop. Even at the end, its key mode is flux.
A wizard learns that hearts are heavy burdens; a disappointed prince declares, with optimism and purpose, "One thing you can count on is that hearts change." Miyazaki leaves viewers with something better than bromides about living happily-ever-after. He delivers an experience that's emotionally and aesthetically complete, and thrilling. Miyazaki knows what poet William Blake did (and Howl didn't) - that exuberance is beauty, and vice-versa.
Starring Cecile De France, Maiwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Released by Lions Gate
Time 85 minutes
Sun Score **** (4 stars)