For all their exceptionality, there is also a numbing sameness to the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, the revered animator who has bewitched Japanese audiences since the late 1970s and bewildered American ones since 1999, when Princess Mononoke was among the first of his movies to receive significant Stateside release. There is something to be said for maintaining consistency of theme and singularity of vision, but after a while even the capricious can feel somehow predictable; or perhaps, at the very least, you know going in what to expect and know you will not be disappointed.
Of course, newcomers to Miyazaki's work -- those who have not seen Mononoke or 2001's whack-and-wacky Spirited Away (awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature), much less his earlier films now available on DVD -- will not be bothered by the reiteration of plotlines (a child trapped in fantastic, occasionally horrific predicaments) and premises (the use of magic to expose how technology is destroying our land and, with it, our culture). And those who consider Miyazaki a master not only forgive him his repetitions, but also celebrate them as the cohesive thesis of an artist using children's fairy tales to underscore the ordinariness of evil in our adult world. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, however, you can't get away with insisting his movies make much sense. Fact is, they'd probably make more sense if you played them backwards. With the sound muted. And a bong by your side.
With his latest, Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki adapts the 1986 book by Diana Wynne Jones about the put-upon eldest of three sisters who lives in a magical town where bad things inevitably happen to good people and war is being waged for reasons explained only in whispers spoken off-screen and barely audible even to the audience. (In Miyazaki's movies, why a thing happens isn't as important as the fact that, well, it just does.) The writer-director sticks closely to the original novel, in which small, plain Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) runs the family hat shop and believes herself doomed to a lonely and dull existence. But on the very same afternoon, Sophie encounters both the foppish flying wizard Howl (Christian Bale, doing his flat American accent) and the grossly obese Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who out of misguided jealousy turns Sophie into a stooped, shriveled 90-year-old.
Sophie, now voiced by Jean Simmons, sneaks out of town and into the wastelands over the hill, where she encounters a cursed scarecrow, the cowardly Howl and, sure enough, a little dog -- yes, it's all so very Wizard of Oz, only with the appearance of not one wicked witch but two, the other being Madame Suliman, the king's personal wizard, voiced by Blythe Danner. Sophie takes up residence as the cleaning woman in Howl's moving castle, a ramshackle iron giant that looks like something excised from one of Monty Python's Flying Circus' animated interludes and is powered by an imprisoned flame called Calcifer (Billy Crystal doing Billy Crystal, which is a welcome relief till it becomes an annoying nuisance).
The Wizard of Oz references continue unabated: Howl, it's believed by frightened villagers, wanders the land to consume the hearts of beautiful women. But like the Tin Man, he's seeking a heart of his own, having swapped his as a child as part of some magical bargain that, again, is never fully explained except during some ambiguous flashback that's more like an acid trip through the looking glass. Yes, there are myriad Alice in Wonderland nods, as well as the random homage to Tolkien; Diana Jones, like George Lucas, regurgitates and refashions her familiar references till they're brand new only because no one's combined them in quite the same way. Only after Miyazaki gets hold of them and infuses them with his own interests and obsessions -- and artistry, because his movies are as stunning as they are confounding -- do they seem at all inventive or singular.
A children's tale told through a combination of old-fashioned animation and newfangled computer generation that's wondrous to behold (if only as a distraction from a confounding storyline), Howl's Moving Castle also serves as an anti-war screed -- to the point, in fact, of being deafening. Howl's been asked to report to the king to serve among his army of wizards and warlocks, but refuses on the grounds he's too frightened to fight. But he's really a conscientious objector who, in the feathery guise of a bird, wages his own private war against the flying ironclads who bomb innocent civilians; he's got no heart, perhaps, but plenty of soul for a wizard demonized by the townsfolk. If the story feels frustratingly makeshift -- it's never explained, for instance, just how Sophie breaks the Witch of the Waste's spell -- its subtext is tangible and reflective, which will come as a shock to parents looking to take their kids to a fun little cartoon during summer break.