Another soulful gem from the peerless Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who made the Academy Award–winning Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a lively 1986 novel for young adults by the English writer Diana Wynne Jones. The book has witches, wizards and magic to burn, but it’s no hyperventilating Harry Potter. Tarrying to muse on fate and character, it features a young heroine who comes into her own only when a huffy witch transforms her into a 90-year-old woman who goes forth to save the heart of a young man who’s heartless in more senses than one. It’s not hard to see the novel’s attraction for Miyazaki, a prolific dreamer of old-fashioned childhood dreams who has long had a thing for wise crones and young girls with brass. Like Jones, Miyazaki takes for granted the ability of small children to embrace sadness, ugly behavior and loss as integral to living. He’s also an old-school humanist with a passion for nature — an ardent environmentalist, he regularly buys up land to shelter it from developers — and no great respect for postmodernity or its favored aesthetic, virtual reality. The 64-year-old director cuts a happily anachronistic figure amid the fiercely adolescent, often fragmentary world of Japanese animation. Though his characters — grunting woodland creatures who swell or shrink or shift shape as necessary; flying cat-buses; wrinkled old ladies who dispense sage counsel to plucky tomboys — wear the large round eyes we associate with anime, most are drawn by hand, move with the stiff, rolling gait of vintage cartoons, and live decidedly earthbound lives. In his detail-obsessed way, Miyazaki’s quite the realist, and certainly no hipster, and yet his work has enjoyed unprecedented success since he broke through in the late 1980s with My Neighbor Totoro, a sophisticated piece of magical whimsy about a tubby creature who comes to the rescue of two lost sisters with a sick mother, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, a charming tale of a spunky apprentice witch. Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) won raves from the critics and many animators in the West, among them Pixar’s John Lasseter, who executive-produced the English-language version of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is being released (alongside a subtitled version in Japanese) by Disney with dubbing by the usual array of big stars. Boasting a ravishing palette in plum, blue-green and slate gray, the movie stars Emily Mortimer, whose pleasantly boyish voice sounds like gravel sliding gently down a mountainside, as young Sophie, a responsible but restless and self-effacing hatter who is harassed one day by soldiers while walking through her picturesque town, a kind of Alpine Kansas. She’s rescued by Wizard Howl (Christian Bale), a beautiful boy who, with his flowing locks, pink-and-gray cape and preening manner, looks alarmingly like an even lighter shade of Michael Jackson. He behaves a lot like the Gloved One too, melting down (literally) when thwarted and announcing plaintively, “There’s no point in living if you can’t be beautiful.” By the time he and Sophie meet again, the young woman has no such options, for she’s been changed by the testy Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), an entertaining drama queen in massively layered folds of neck, into an intrepid old dame (Jean Simmons) freed of all girlish terrors. Setting out to seek her destiny, Sophie hitches a ride on Howl’s castle, a fearsome, ungainly old contraption that belches steam and black smoke as it endlessly roams the terrain on scaly dark feet. My daughter thought it looked like a fish with chicken legs, and so it does, except that in context it also reminded me of a broken heart, with its clanky moving parts all out of sync. Howl’s own organ has been cut out by the Witch, and it’s rumored that in the search for a replacement he likes to feast on the hearts of lovely young girls. Like his home, each of whose doors faces out onto a different world, the multiselved young wizard is the very quintessence of the postmodern spirit — restless, emotionally depleted, full of nameless fears and anxious self-regard. Still, nobody’s all bad in a Miyazaki movie. Over time, Howl begins to respond to Sophie, who — being brave, hard-working, resourceful and instinctively loving — is the very essence of the old-time virtues he so sorely lacks. To see Howl’s Moving Castle immediately after the wimpy Madagascar is to grasp what’s wrong with most American movies for kids, even the best of which, such as Shrek or Finding Nemo, traffic in cutesiness and an arch knowingness, the result in all likelihood of an insecure fear of losing their grip on the audience, children and adults alike. Howl is often impish — the slimy black things the Witch of Waste sends after Howl wear Panama hats — but Miyazaki never panders to moviegoers with Eddie Murphy asides. There’s no catchy pop score to cue our feelings — mostly we’re aware of the rustle and squeak of footsteps, or the labored “breathing” of the castle. The pace frequently slows down for no other purpose than to observe someone play with a stick. And although there are all kinds of ancillary critters to keep things lively, among them a cantankerous fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), the nearest thing to adorable is a small dog that looks like a broom head. In all of Miyazaki’s films, the past, or at least some bucolic, unspoiled, Europeanized past of his fertile imagination, is an object of nostalgic reverence. At the end, the castle — refurbished and reintegrated into a pretty, comfortable home — opens onto a vista of waving green grasses and wildflowers as sentimental as any Disney idyll, about as Swiss as the illustrated Heidi, and somehow enormously quieting to the spirit. For all his tragic vision of life — one scene in which Sophie and the Witch pant up endless flights of stairs is frankly Sisyphean — Miyazaki’s work is washed through with a fundamental decency and compassion that, to judge by his robust box office in Japan, has pierced even the leathery hides of underage anime fans. It certainly pierced mine. I doubt whether even Miyazaki, who, in a rare interview granted to The New Yorker last year, waxed sniffy about the current young Turks of animated film, would take umbrage at Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3D, even if it does gaily propose that dream life has the edge over reality. Written and directed by Rodriguez from poolside stories he developed with his 7-year-old son, this slight but immensely enjoyable charmer features Max (Cayden Boyd) as a sensitive little boy (what other kind is there when there are monsters to be faced down?) who discovers that his imaginary world is more fun, and in short order more real, than a life of feuding parents and schoolyard bullies. Before you can strap on your 3-D glasses, Max and salient others in his tormented life are whisked off to Planet Drool, which is amply stocked with sick-making roller-coaster rides, extension cords that think they’re snakes, banana splits that make nice boats, and a nasty Mr. Electric (George Lopez) with a marked resemblance to Max’s homeroom teacher. All of these the lad negotiates, with a brief stopover in the Land of Milk and Cookies, in the company of his two finest creations, the well-finned Shark Boy (Taylor Lautner) and the overflowing Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley). Much hair-raising fun is had on the Train of Thought and the Stream of Consciousness, excellent embodiments of the loosely associative world of today’s fully digitalized youth. There are some fine, upstanding messages about friendship, identity and selflessness, but I wouldn’t fret too much about those. After the truly horrid Sin City, it’s a relief to see Rodriguez let his inner Spy Kid out to play again. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE | Written and directed by HAYAO MIYAZAKI | English-language adaptation by CINDY DAVIS HEWITT and DONALD H. HEWITT | Based on the novel by DIANA WYNNE JONES | Produced by TOSHIO SUZUKI | Released by Buena Vista Pictures | Citywide THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL 3D | Written and directed by ROBERT RODRIGUEZ | Produced by ELIZABETH AVELLAN and RODRIGUEZ | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide
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