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Citadel on a Hill: Howl's Castle looms over a spell-aged Sophie in Hayao Miyazaki's latest.

Wizard's Vision

Master animator Hayao Miyazaki looks back on a world speeding to war in 'Howl's Moving Castle'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN SOMEONE hands you a box of jewels, it's impolite to point out that some of the pearls inside aren't as well strung together as they could be. The newest from Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, Howl's Moving Castle, is mostly everything you could expect from the artists behind Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Howl's Moving Castle represents the kind of taste and tenderness that many presume to be as dead as 2-D animation. The animated feature is derived from a children's book by Diana Wynne Jones, who commented, "I think I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was 5 years old." She means the outbreak of World War II.

Jones was slightly older than director Miyazaki, who was born in 1941. Yet both were evacuated from their childhood homes because of the war. So Howl's Moving Castle is a story of feuding wizards and enchanted castles, but also of air-raids and burning cities.

The film begins in a toylike Central European capital in about 1914. The pastel city pleases the eye, no matter how deep you look into the frame. It is all Victorian sumptuousness, marked by wedding-cake towers, glass-roofed conservatories and steam engines speeding by on railway embankments. It's a cross between Paris and Vienna.

But the fluttering of mauve-and-gold-striped flags and the lounging chocolate-soldier hussars in the streets are all signs of war to come. The prince is missing, and a rival kingdom is accused of having abducted him. Dreadnaughts float in the harbor, and zeppelins are being readied with bombs. The common people cheer them all, not comprehending that these weapons can be used against them.

In one corner of the city, the plain girl Sophie toils away in her mother's hat shop. One evening, the feared wizard Howl materializes and takes Sophie for a little stroll in the skies. Howl's favor is discovered by his jealous rival, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall voices her). To punish Sophie, the witch turns the girl into an old hag and takes from her the ability to describe how she was enchanted.

In the foggy mountains above the city, Sophie climbs Howl's castle, a shambling, armored pile that creeps on reptilian legs, like Baba Yaga's hut in the Russian fairy tales. Inside, Sophie is given a grudging welcome from Howl's familiar, a fire demon called Calcifer (Billy Crystal). All isn't well though, since Howl has J. Robert Oppenheimer's problem. His powers of magic are required by his government, and they won't take no for an answer.

Howl's Moving Castle is, as the title says, moving. The delicacy and emotions show up the crassness of celeb-driven toons like Madagascar and Shark Tale. Despite its amazing feats of imagination, however, elementary plot points seem to evaporate. The wagers of a foolish war are never punished or shamed. Nor do we see the rebuilding after the bombardment.

The Western cast, assembled by Pixar's Pete Docter, is well picked. As Howl, Christian Bale uses his Batman voice, powerful but insinuating. And Emily Mortimer rightfully sounds like a girl who works for a living, rather than a posh ingénue of the stage. But Crystal takes some of the scariness out of the tale. His Calcifer, the vestal fire-spirit burning on Howl's hearth is a buddy and a blusterer. Miyazaki's animation shows a creature that's a little more untrustworthy. It is never safe to turn your back on a fire.

A screening of the original subtitled version of Howl plays at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley on June 9 as part of its retrospective of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. The series provides a chance to see such favorites as My Friend Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and the theatrically unreleased (why?) The Cat Returns.

For more than 20 years, Miyazaki and his partner, Isao Takahata, have revolutionized animation by understanding the power of color and mood. They've rooted their animation not in violence and escapism, but rather in the old human problems of war and despoliation, of isolation and nostalgia.

After the bad experience of having Ghibli's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds heedlessly cut and redubbed in the West, the studio carried out a 10-year boycott of U.S. theatrical exhibition. Thus Princess Mononoke arrived in 1999 to flabbergast Western critics.

Of all Howl's magicks, one most envies the front door to his castle, a multidimensional portal to many different destinations, from a fisherman's harbor to an alpine valley. Ghibli's films are a true remedy for the pain of being stuck in one era and one place.

Howl's Moving Castle (PG; 110 min.), an animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki, opens Friday in San Francisco and June 17 in the valley.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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