After Toy Story, Shrek, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the bar is set so high for animated features these days that okay movies like Robots and Madagascar can seem strangely disappointing. Where's the jaw-dropping magic we've come to know and love? But there's at least one director who's found a way around the great expectations we have for Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks cartoons. Japan's Hayao Miyazaki hasn't jumped on the digital bandwagon; his movies don't have that plasticized sheen. And he all but disdains pop culture. But he's starting to catch on in the United States, partly because his work is so foreign to us. Where else are you going to encounter, say, Blob Men ' shape-shifting collections of goo that, for reasons only Miyazaki understands (assuming he understands), sport straw boaters on what passes for their heads?
These are among the creatures that Miyazaki has assembled for Howl's Moving Castle, his latest foray into the magic kingdom of his strange imagination. Though based on a children's novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is very much a Miyazaki production, and watching it is like entering someone else's dream, a place where things might not make all that much sense, even to the dreamer, but upon further reflection do have a certain kind of weird logic to them. At first glance, the story could be a fairy tale by, say, the Brothers Grimm: An evil witch casts a spell on a young girl, transforming her into an old woman who no longer has much of a chance with Prince Charming. At second glance, the story is closer to Harry Potter; for, come to find out, Prince Charming is a wizard who also has a spell cast on him.
At third glance, Howl's Moving Castle is an acid trip unto itself. Take that castle, for instance. It's an enormous ramshackle contraption that moves about the countryside on what appear to be chicken feet, belching smoke and blowing off steam. Leaving her job as a milliner, the now-old Sophie takes up residence in the castle, where she proceeds to tidy up the place a bit and make the acquaintance of the other residents: Markl, a young boy who's learning how to become a wizard; Calcify, a fire demon with a secret; and Howl, a wizard who's learning how to become a man, or at least how to act like one. Howl is Sophie's Prince Charming. He just doesn't know it yet. Nor does Sophie know it yet. But who's going to break the spell that turns Howl into a monstrous bird of prey whenever his emotions get away from him? Where's Sophie's fairy godmother?
It turns out she's her own fairy godmother, and Howl's Moving Castle is a coming-of-age story that deliberately overshoots the age that Sophie is coming to. Only in a Miyazaki film, perhaps, would a young girl draw strength from having been transformed into a old woman. But transformation is this cinematic wizard's stock-in-trade. And the most alarming transformation of all is the war that erupts in this fantasy land, which, given the cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses and Edwardian fashions, bears a distinct resemblance to Europe circa 1914. That the muddy trenches of Verdun might have been populated with witches and wizards, spirits and sprites, is part of what makes Howl's Moving Castle such a difficult movie to figure out. But not being able to figure it out is part of its charm, what keeps us under its spell.
By the way, the movie has been playing around the country in two versions: subtitled or dubbed by Hollywood stars. Madison's Westgate Art Cinemas has gone with the subtitles, for which I can only say, "Thank you."