It is a truth universally acknowledged among moviegoers that the onscreen adaptation of a novel will basically blow. Not so with Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle.
The animated film, which opens in theaters on June 10, summarily outstrips the young adult fantasy novel of the same name on which it's based, even if it has a tendency to dive into saccharine sentimentality in typical Miyazaki fashion.
The bones of the original, written by British author Diana Wynne Jones, are all there: Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer in the English-language version) is a young woman who is transformed into a humpbacked crone (voiced by two-time Oscar nominee Jean Simmons) by the malicious Witch of the Waste (Oscar nominee Lauren Bacall). Shuffling languorously past the outskirts of town while muttering encouragements to herself, "Grandma" Sophie decides to search for and enlist the aid of the infamous--and excruciatingly vain--wizard Howl (Batman Begins' Christian Bale).
The greater part of the movie, however, is consummate Miyazaki, the "auteur of anime" responsible for such cinematic gems as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. Instead of the wide-eyed footmen Jones describes, for instance, Miyazaki gives the Witch of the Waste oily, amorphous henchmen with the sheen and consistency of melted tar. They lumber along cobblestone paths and ooze through cracks in the wall with sluggish but frightening ease.
While Jones' Howl's degenerates into a oppressive tangle of plot turns and non sequiturs, Miyazaki prunes the novel's excess verbiage with a meditative, almost Zen-like mastery. The result is a delicate koan that questions if love is truly, as the old chestnut goes, only skin deep. For as we soon discover, Sophie isn't the only one under a spell.
Unlike Jones' Sophie, who turns tail and hides from an enchanted, turnip-headed scarecrow that insists on stalking her, Miyazaki's Sophie welcomes the silent but steady companion. It is this Sophie's gentle kindness--and by extension, the story's clarion call of the importance of "inner beauty"--that rehabilitates a villain, unravels a mystery and forges several happily-ever-afters (come now, were you honestly expecting any less?).
In another major departure from the Jones' book, Miyazaki's Howl's centers on a war between two feuding nations. Against darkened skies, Howl, in bird-human hybrid form, swoops angrily over scorched vistas of devastated towns. As he tries to blow apart the imperial airships responsible for the wreckage, the anti-war message is unmistakable, and unsurprising, considering that Miyazaki himself grew up the post-war tumult and desolation of post-war Japan.
The story's true central character isn't Sophie, but Howl's moving castle itself, which functions as both the setting of many scenes and the primary mode of transport--a magical door opens up into different locales depending on where the pointer of a multicolored dial is resting. The castle of Jones' imagining has a description that's disappointing spare--a "tall black castle ... blowing clouds of black smoke from its four tall, thin turrets."
Miyazaki, however, presents us with a huffing and puffing, looming bulwark of a castle darkened with a patina of filth and assembled willy-nilly out of what resembles salvaged scrap metal and junkyard remains. Balanced precariously on a set of giant, mechanical chicken haunches that crash determinedly through the countryside, it's the type of mobile quarters a steampunk Baba Yaga would elect, considering the Russian folklore character's obvious influence on the castle's design. Similarly, Miyazaki draws heavily upon fairytale archetypes not found in Jones' own book--and as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of fairytales knows, only true love wields the power to break the spell.
Produced by Pixar Animation Studio's John Lasseter--ironic since Pixar helped sound the death knell for 2-D animation--and directed by Pixar's Pete Doctor and Disney's Rick Dempsey, the English-language cast also includes Josh Hutcherson as Markl, Howl's young apprentice, the lovably irascible Billy Crystal as the lovably irascible fire demon Calcifer, and Blythe Danner making a sort-of cameo as the King's formidable head sorceress Madame Sulliman.
(Howl's Moving Castle opens June 10. Running time: 119 minutes, PG).