The titular castle, to begin with, is an amalgam that might symbolize the entire project: a fused junkpile of architectural odds and ends lifted from Medieval fortresses, 19th-century factories, Spanish galleons, WWII battleships, countryside cottages, boiler rooms, God knows what all, walking around on giant chicken's feet and dragging a dinosaur's tail, the residence of a glam-rock wizard called Howl (voiced, in the English-dubbed version, by our new Batman, Christian Bale) and a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost fire demon called Calcifer (expressing himself with the Borsht Belt shtick of Billy Crystal), and the refuge of the demure heroine, a young milliner transmogrified into a hunchbacked crone by the multiple-chinned Witch of the Waste. It looks -- and this is not meant as a compliment -- like something you might encounter in a live-action Terry Gilliam film, right down to the computer animation that so contaminates Miyazaki's hand-drawn purism. The setting is a similar amalgam: an alternative Europe of past and future, history and fairy tale, naturalistic novel and prettified operetta, pastoral ideal and urban dystopia, model T's and s-f flying machines, grazing sheep and ambulatory edifice, mythical birdman and Disney ingenue, all jammed together, with a lot more besides. It's too much of a good thing. Or anyway, too much of a thing, whether or not good.
What the film most definitely does lack is adequate mundanity to ground the runaway whimsy (the breakfast of bacon and eggs stands out as an exception), and, more importantly, adequate narrative drive -- an adequate narrative motor -- to propel the viewer through the long, slow couple of hours (the very vague Orwellian war in the distance never acquires any clarity or urgency). There is nevertheless a good deal to like: the pogo-sticking scarecrow, the wheezy little terrier, the authentically dreamlike bit of the hero and heroine walking on air to escape a mob of faceless tar-blob creatures, the comical bit of a snail-paced race up a mountain of stairs between the corpulent witch and the hunchbacked crone, the temporary smoothing-out of the crone's wrinkles at moments when she recaptures her youthful ardor. Miyazaki maniacs, of which there are more than a few, will doubtless find much else to like. As for me, I'll stick with the anime from earlier in the year, Steamboy.