Twenty years before Harry Potter was a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye, British author Diana Wynne Jones was already writing sparky, deft fantasy novels that were safe for kids and clever enough for adults. One of her most popular was 1986's Howl's Moving Castle, a giddy modern fairy tale packed with transformations, mysteries, and an almost screwball-comedy flavor. The bustling book seems like it would jibe poorly with the sweeter, more sentimental style of Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro), but the two work surprisingly well together, and Miyazaki's animated adaptation of Jones' book is a charming and thoroughly absorbing treat.
The movie's only real flaw is its pacing: It begins somewhat lumpily, as Sophie, a teenage milliner, sighs her way through a dull day in her hat shop in a vaguely Old World European village. But her bland life is upended by a memorable encounter with a mad, romantic wizard named Howl (voiced in the English dub by Christian Bale). Shortly thereafter, a smug witch (Lauren Bacall) with her own designs on Howl changes Sophie into an old woman, and Sophie flees town. Seeking shelter in a ramshackle castle that wanders the local hills on mechanical legs, Sophie (voiced in teenage guise by Emily Mortimer, and in elderly form by Jean Simmons) finds herself in Howl's home, in the company of his capable young apprentice (Josh Hutcherson) and kvetching fire-demon familiar (a shticky Billy Crystal). The plot sprawls in many directions from there, as Sophie attempts to recover her youth and help her new friends: Miyazaki simplifies Jones' original story, but for every subplot he removes, he adds another, and the result is almost more story than a two-hour movie can support.
Some of the added themes are too familiar from Miyazaki's other movies: His love of fanciful flying machines, his hatred of war, and his belief in the redemptive power of kindness are once again central, and they all feel a bit redundant. But his typical visual playfulness and absorption in fine detail both work wonderfully with Jones' protean conception of magic: Form is as fluid as mood in Howl's Moving Castle, and the constant visual shifts as the characters change shape, size, and species are stunning. Miyazaki puts his clean designs and evocative, whimsical imagery to good use in adding flavor to characters who might otherwise get bogged down in the complicated plot.
Howl's Moving Castle doesn't entirely feel like a Jones book, or a Miyazaki movie. The narrative is denser and more story-driven than anything Miyazaki has attempted before, while much of Jones' acerbic humor is lost. But both creators gain a great deal from the collaboration. Young kids may find the film hard to follow, but for older viewers, this is something like the Holy Grail of animation: A film with all the joy and wonder of a Miyazaki movie, plus a story as sophisticated as his phenomenal animation.