The Disney-Pixar partnership has helped choke off hand-drawn animation in favor of the computer-generated variety.
Even so, 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).
Miyazaki’s new film, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” is a strange delight awash in visual splendor, understated humor and clever body-and-soul transmogrifications among its bonny band of weirdos.
Describing the story is 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 is a richly layered reflection on unreasoning patriotism, fealty to the state, war for war’s sake and technology versus mysticism and nature.
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.
Sophie (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).