A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Almost the first sight we see in "Howl's Moving Castle" is the castle itself, which looks as if it were hammered together in shop class by wizards inspired by the lumbering, elephantine war machines in "The Empire Strikes Back." The castle is an amazing visual invention, a vast collection of turrets and annexes, protuberances and afterthoughts, which makes its way across the landscape like a turtle in search of a rumble. I settled back in my seat, confident that Japan's Hayao Miyazaki had once again created his particular kind of animated magic, and that the movie would deserve comparison with "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and the other treasures of the most creative animator in the history of the art form.
But it was not to be. While the movie contains delights and inventions without pause and has undeniable charm, while it is always wonderful to watch, while it has the Miyazaki visual wonderment, it's a disappointment, compared to his recent work. Adapted from a British novel by Diana Wynne Jones, it resides halfway between the Brothers Grimm and "The Wizard of Oz," with shape-shifting that includes not merely beings but also objects and places.
Chief among the shape-shifters is the castle itself, which can swell with power and then shrivel in defeat. Inside the castle are spaces that can change on a whim, and a room with a door that opens to -- well, wherever it needs to open. The Castle roams the Waste Lands outside two warring kingdoms, which seem vaguely 19th-century European; it is controlled by Howl himself, a young wizard much in demand but bedeviled with personal issues.
The story opens with Sophie (voice by Emily Mortimer), a hatmaker who sits patiently at her workbench while smoke-belching trains roar past her window. When she ventures out, she's attacked by obnoxious soldiers but saved by Howl (voice by Christian Bale), who is himself being chased by inky globs of shapeless hostility. This event calls Sophie's existence to the attention of Howl's enemy, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who fancies Howl for herself, and in a fit of jealousy, turns Sophie into a wrinkled old woman, bent double, and voiced now by Jean Simmons. For most of the rest of the movie, the heroine will be this ancient crone; we can remind ourselves that young Sophie is trapped inside, but the shape-switch slows things down, as if Grandmother were creeping through the woods to Red Riding Hood's house.