Based on a novel by popular children's author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is the third Hayao Miyazaki feature to receive a theatrical release in the U.S. Displaying many of Miyazaki's signature themes and effects, the film tells a dense, complicated story in a challenging style. Spirited Away, his last picture, won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and as his reputation grows, Miyazaki draws more fans into his intricate, unpredictable works.

Miyazaki's fans sometimes refer to his film's settings as "neverwhen" worlds. Howl's Moving Castle takes place in a vaguely European mountainous region marked by both Alpine meadows and grimy industrial towns. In a small room off her mother's millinery store, young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) sews flowers on hats. While threats of war escalate in the background, and shop girls gossip about the wizard Howl (Christian Bale) who roams the countryside in search of hearts to steal, Sophie worries over her purpose in life. Pursued by menacing "blob" men on a street, she is rescued by a handsome man who dances her over the rooftops of the city. The encounter changes Sophie's life in ways she never expected.

Her rescuer turns out to be Howl, and his enemy, the Witch of the Wasteland (Lauren Bacall), takes an instant dislike to Sophie. She casts a spell which ages the girl into an elderly woman (voiced by Jean Simmons). To restore her youth, Sophie must find a cure from Howl without telling him what happened (one of the conditions of the spell).

Sophie moves into Howl's castle, a hulking pile of cast-off metal parts and abandoned houses that is powered by Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a demon who lives in the fireplace. To resolve her fate, she will travel backward and forward in time, befriend a bouncing scarecrow with a turnip's head, learn to fly, and discover the tragic secret to Howl's life.

With its physical transformations and liberal, antiwar politics, Howl's Moving Castle would seem to fit in well with Miyazaki's other films. The director's grasp of animation techniques is as impressive as the depth and substance of his imaginary worlds. The changing weather, complex patterns of motion, lustrous color schemes and remarkable architecture envelop viewers, almost compensating for the thin plotting. The animator and his crew, many of whom have been working with him for 20 years, expertly juggle scenes of matter-of-fact magic, gentle humor and icy terror. Still, Miyazaki has trouble resolving some of the more prosaic elements of Jones' book. Fans may not mind the clichéd plot turns, while others can lose themselves in Miyazaki's bravura action passages. It's wonderful watching Howl's castle crumble at one point, even if the reasons behind it are trite.

Along with the English version, which has been expertly cast and recorded, Disney is releasing a subtitled Japanese version in select markets. The inevitable differences between the films actually don't amount to much-perhaps the Japanese Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashuin) is a bit more spirited than Billy Crystal, but both are charming. The two versions simply confirm that Miyazaki is one of the world's master animators.
-Daniel Eagan