On one hand, the Disney-Pixar partnership has helped choke off hand-drawn animation in favor of the computer-generated variety.
On the other hand, the two outfits have preserved traditional animation with loving translations of films from Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” the 2002 Academy Award winner for feature animation).
Thank the spirit of Uncle Walt for that other hand. Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the English-language version of which was overseen by key figures at Disney and Pixar, is a strange delight awash in visual splendor, understated humor and clever body-and-soul transmogrifications among its bonny band of weirdoes.
The film presents a sneakily feel-good story wrapped in an off-kilter fairy tale with action and logic that will feel foreign and perplexing at times to U.S. audiences. But part of the fun is trying to decipher Miyazaki’s cryptic twists, and ultimately abandoning the effort to give yourself over to the enigmatic barrage of sight and sound.
Describing the story is both simple and challenging. On the surface, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a straightforward quest by a teenage girl to undo a spell that has turned her into a 90-year-old woman.
Adapted by writer-director Miyazaki from the children’s book by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, the film on deeper levels is a richly layered reflection on unreasoning patriotism, fealty to the state, war for war’s sake, and technology versus mysticism and nature.
No one is quite what they seem in “Howl’s” world, each key character hidden behind facades of their own making or behind spells and curses cast by others.
Young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) pretends to be a dutiful daughter in her late father’s hat shop, yet she’s secretly a romantic soul resigned to a life of dreary toil while longing for something more.
An exhilarating encounter with studly wizard Howl (Christian Bale) brings Sophie to the attention of the menacing Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who jealously transforms the girl into a crone.
The aged Sophie (voiced by Jean Simmons) sets off into exile to find a way to break the curse. Sophie stumbles onto Howl’s strange mobile household, a walking contraption of gears, pulleys, balconies and apertures that resembles one of the bloated creatures from Terry Gilliam’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” animation.
Establishing herself as castle housekeeper, Sophie befriends Howl, his young aide Markl (Josh Hutcherson), gabby “fire demon” Calcifer (Billy Crystal), and a grinning scarecrow with a turnip for a head that uses his pole like a pogo-stick to hop around.
What begins as standard Brothers Grimm enchantment turns through-the-looking-glass curiouser as Sophie uncovers secrets from virtually everyone’s past, witnesses mass destruction from a senseless war and becomes Howl’s unlikely savior from the schemes of sorceress Suliman (Blythe Danner).
Where Disney-Pixar productions such as “The Incredibles” and “Monsters, Inc.” caricature reality, Miyazaki’s films shatter it. He offers finely detailed images of grimy mid-Industrial Age progress juxtaposed with fanciful war machines and flying craft that are both retro and futuristic.
Characters are in a constant state of flux, Sophie’s visage changing depending on her moods and who’s perceiving her, Howl’s shape alternating between human and soaring winged thing depending on the needs of the moment.
The action and imagery grows increasingly surreal even as the core of the story becomes a more and more familiar love story between Sophie and Howl.
Pixar creative mastermind John Lasseter, who pioneered feature-length computer animation with the “Toy Story” flicks and “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.” director Pete Docter and Disney executive Rick Dempsey led the team that produced the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Lasseter and Disney also oversaw the translated edition of “Spirited Away,” while the studio did the same for DVD releases of many of Miyazaki’s earlier films. Disney and Pixar, while focusing their future on the digital world, clearly recognize the artistry of a master who refuses to let go of animation’s glorious pen-and-ink past.