Hayao Miyazaki, the doyen of anime, creates here a dreamworld that doesn't so much pull the spectator into it as push him towards his own: more snore than howl. It certainly doesn't lack for imaginative detail. On the contrary, it could have made do with a little less. The titular castle, for the prime example, 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 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. What the film most definitely does lack, on the other hand, 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 lot to like: the pogo-sticking scarecrow, the wheezy little pooch, 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, besides. With the voices of Jean Simmons, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner. (2005) — Duncan Shepherd
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