In the films of Hayao Miyazaki, there's no firm wall between the natural and the supernatural. Miyazaki's work is set in a nature that's positively saturated with spirits, and you can feel that animism in the animation itself—not just in the creatures that materialize out of the shadows, but in the waving of grass, the trees, even the bend of light. It sounds awfully New Age-y, but Miyazaki's pantheism is defensive and plenty angry. His antagonists are the enemies of nature: the industrialists who plunder it, the warmongers who deface it. Although many of his movies—notably My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away—are coming-of-age parables, coming of age means learning to respect the life force in everything—or losing one's soul.
Miyazaki's latest film, Howl's Moving Castle (Walt Disney Pictures) is based on a novel by England's prolific fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, but the director has made the story his own: It features vividly detailed panoramas, creatures both ordinary and bizarre, and flabbergasting machines that carry the industrious heroine into another realm. But it's a difficult work—a tough sell, commercially—beginning like a fairy tale and evolving into a bleak anti-war movie, with demons both internal and external. It's as if Miyazaki has wedded his enchanting Spirited Away to his ferocious allegory of the end of nature, Princess Mononoke, and come up with something more discomfiting than either.
The timid Sophie, the heroine (it's almost always a girl or woman in Miyazaki's work), lives in a newly industrialized English town, in which warplanes buzz overhead and demons roam the countryside. Sophie works for her mother making hats and fears she'll grow old behind her sewing machine. Even when she has a fantastic encounter with a dashing young man, in which they fly through the air to escape a group of slithering shadow blobs in straw hats (where does Miyazaki get these ideas?), she can't bring herself to get her hopes up. Then an immensely fat woman with chins under chins enters the shop: the infamous Witch of the Waste. The witch casts a spell that turns Sophie into what she feared she'd become—a withered crone.
Many of Miyazaki's films involve a journey into the wilderness—the portal to the spirits. So, old Sophie trudges into the countryside and hitches a ride with Howl's Moving Castle, reputed to be a demon swallower of young girls. It's an amazing creation—you could stare at it for hours. It's huge, with taloned feet, chimneys belching smoke, ladders, propellers, captain's walks, and what appear to be fins. It has portholes like eyes. It's studded all over with little houses: Who lives in them? It's not alive, but it has been infused with life by a fire demon known as Calcifer. This flaming imp is cursed to remain in a fireplace in the parlor of the dreamboat wizard Howl, who turns out to be the young man that Sophie met in town. Of course, he doesn't recognize her, and part of her curse is that she can't tell anyone she's not a 90-year-old woman. So, Sophie goes to work as a housekeeper—or, rather, moving-castle-keeper, and makes herself part of the family.
To reveal any more would deprive you of your splendid disorientation, but it's fair to say that the focus shifts from Sophie's curse to the sharklike warplanes obliterating the natural landscape. The drama is in whether Howl, who behaves like a moody rock star, can pull himself together and use his magic to end the war. But sullen Howl stews. His emotions have been clouded by a curse of his own. Everyone in this damn movie has a curse!
Frankly, I found it difficult to keep track of Howl's mood swings, which make parts of him deliquesce into green goo. And the ins and outs of the war—which seems to be partially run by the king's powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, who wants to enlist Howl's aid—remained mystifying. (The shark planes suggest World War I, which was pretty mystifying, too.) What's easy to chart are the ups and downs of Sophie. As she finds the courage to drag Howl out of his despair, her features transform: now young, now old, now something tremulously in between.
Under the direction of Pixar's John Lassiter and Pete Docter, the English soundtrack is surprisingly soulful. Christian Bale does Howl (his second hero of the week, since Batman Begins opens Wednesday). The delightfully pert Emily Mortimer is the young Sophie, and Jean Simmons is her older incarnation—and Simmons is inspired vocal casting because her voice might quaver but her inflections are still those of the young Estella in Great Expectations. The deliciously throaty Blythe Danner made me laugh as Madame Suliman, and Lauren Bacall's voice has dropped so low that she makes the Witch of the Waste sound like a female impersonator. The one mistake is casting Billy Crystal as Calcifer. He tries to suppress his Borscht Belt singsong, but his vocal patterns are still too familiar for a tale this wondrously weird.
Miyazaki's movies have a much different tempo than the in-your-face American cartoons with vocals by Crystal and other jabbering showbiz personalities. (The main characters of Robots couldn't take a walk across town without it turning into a brain-rattling spectacle.) It's not that Miyazaki's work is static. It's that everything has its proper weight. Even with all the motion and hairpin narrative reversals, his movies are even and contemplative, with landscapes you can get lost in. Because of its convolutions, Howl's Moving Castle isn't quite as transporting as Spirited Away. But it's a moving bridge between his lyrical fancies and his outrage. Miyazaki is like a soulful cartographer of the soul, mapping our inner landscape, leaving us bedazzled.