I can't imagine anyone who saw "Spirited Away"--the most wondrous and mysterious of animated films--wanting to miss "Howl's Moving Castle." Hayao Miyazaki seems to be one of those artists (and there aren't many) who just can't fail to make magic. His latest, which he freely adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, concerns an 18-year-old girl, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who is transformed into a stooped 90-year-old (Jean Simmons) when the enormous, jealous and overdressed Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) casts a spell on her. The witch once lost her heart to the vain, gorgeous and inscrutable wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who lives in that mobile, four-legged castle.
I won't even try to describe the plot, which in characteristic Miyazaki fashion flies off in one unexpected direction after another. It involves Sophie's quest to break her spell, a war, a fire demon (a funny but distractingly familiar Billy Crystal) and questions of the heart. Miyazaki does not play by the rules of Hollywood family entertainments, where the line of demarcation between good and evil is always clear. His gorgeous hand-drawn fables float in a shimmering sea of ambiguity. Is Howl benign or malignant, or a little of both? Who could guess that Sophie would find herself taking care of the very witch who bewitched her? And who but Miyazaki would dare plunge us into a war without telling us which side was which? (In this antiwar fable, it doesn't matter.) "Howl's Moving Castle" has the logic of a dream: behind every door lie multiple realities, one more astonishing than the next.