HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (Hayao Miyazaki). 110 minutes. Opens Friday (June 10). For venues and times, see Movies, page 115. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Howl's Moving Castle is a graceful fantasy that builds on the strengths Hayao Miyazaki displayed in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
His riotous imagination remains strong. The titular castle is a glorious ruin of domes and cottages that lurches over the countryside on mechanical chicken legs. His characters are well drawn, as always, and his richly textured backgrounds enhance both character and mood.
This visual elegance supports a strong-hearted story. Miyazaki usually makes young girls his heroes and celebrates their coming of age, but here he turns the young hatmaker Sophie into an old woman via a pointlessly malicious curse imposed by the Witch of the Waste, beautifully voiced by Lauren Bacall . This sends her to Howl ( Christian Bale ), a young and handsome but heartless wizard who's slowly turning into a monster. Love and war ensue.
But nothing plays out like a simple-minded battle of good and evil. Old Sophie never finds a dramatic cure. The demon who holds Howl's heart - Billy Crystal getting most of the laughs - achieves a liberation of sorts, and even the witch who's identified as the main foe seems more a wise mother figure than anything else.
In the end, what emerges is a gently comic meditation on age.