(director: Hayao Miyazaki-the original Japanese version (Pete Docter and Rick Dempsey-the English-language version); screenwriters: based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones/Hayao Miyazaki/Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt; editor: Takeshi Seyama; music: Joe Hisaishi; cast: (voices): Jean Simmons (Grandma Sophie), Christian Bale (Howl), Lauren Bacall (Witch of the Waste), Blythe Danner (Madame Suliman), Emily Mortimer (Young Sophie), Josh Hutcherson (Markl), Billy Crystal (Calcifer), Jena Malone (Lettie), Crispin Freeman (Prince Turnip); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Rick Dempsey/Ned Lott/Toshio Suzuki; Walt Disney Pictures; 2004-Japan-dubbed in English)

“Puts forth a sensitive and well-meaning story that makes sense for today’s troublesome world.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The latest fine example of animation from the mid-sixtyish aged Hayao Miyazaki, known as the master of anime and the director of “Princess Mononoke,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away,” is this sophisticated childhood fantasy tale emphasizing a decided distaste for violence and war. It’s adapted from the 1986 novel by Englishwoman Diana Wynne Jones. In Japan, it has become one of the country’s biggest blockbusters, taking in a B.O. of over $193 million. It remains to see how it will do in the States, since it has only a limited theater release and its complex story seems to have scared off its distributors.

Sophie is a sweet, soft-spoken 18-year-old hatmaker (Emily Mortimer), content with her ordinary life. But when the jealous, greedy obese Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) comes into her store, she receives a curse which transforms her into a gray-haired old crone (Jean Simmons). Unduly upset by the change, Sophie soon rolls with her new image as a granny and discovers in herself a new adventurous take on life. Fleeing the war-torn European-like city (set sometime in the early 1900s), Sophie searches for a way of breaking the curse in the countryside. On the road she meets a scarecrow (Crispin Freeman), whose head is a turnip and is named that by Sophie. The two become soul mates. Later she will learn he is a neighboring prince who has been cursed by a powerful witch during the war.

Finding an odd looking dilapidated castle, Sophie takes refuge there to become the cleaning lady. In the castle she trades quips and magical moments with the chatty fire-demon named Calcifer (the film’s only misfire, as Billy Crystal loads it up with comic shtick that doesn’t fit the scenario) and bonds with the young apprentice wizard Markl (Josh Hutcherson). The master of this unique castle, with color-coded door exits to many different worlds, is a handsome wizard named Howl (Christian Bale). The castle has mechanical legs and can move easily from one location to another through the fire power provided by Calcifer. Ignoring their age differences, Sophie and Howl fall in love. When in his presence, her youthful appearance seems to return for awhile.

From here on there are too many subplots to adequately comment on, as Sophie is drawn to helping her new friends undo their curses while also trying to regain her own lost youth. The sometimes courageous and other times cowardly Howl is seen as a womanizer and a narcissist, who is hiding behind many aliases and is unable to confront situations straight on. But with Sophie’s loving help, he is led around to overcoming his selfishness. She also spiritedly encounters the Witch of the Waste again in a magnificent scene where they both climb the many steps of the palace as the Witch’s youth fades back to her old age and an energetic Sophie, in her face to face with Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), the king’s chief sorceress and the powerful witch mentor of Howl who took away his heart, matches wits with the most powerful sorceress in their palace meeting. In the background an idiotic war is being carried out between the two neighboring unidentified European kingdoms that is unnecessarily draining the energy of both kingdoms, as the plucky Sophie works her magic in bringing the hostility to a close.

It might be a lot to ask of a children’s pic and its targeted young audience to get all the nuances to this literate anti-war screenplay, but nevertheless this is a really classy tale and its vivid animations, wondrous dreamscapes, spellbinding visuals, tremendous fantasy sequences and heartfelt gentle storytelling, make this one of the better films to come down the pike. What it does best, perhaps, is have a healthy respect for the viewer (both child and adult) as it puts forth a sensitive and well-meaning story that makes sense for today’s troublesome world.

Howl's Moving Castle