'Howl's Moving Castle" is a smart, entertaining fairy tale for all ages that outdoes not only the miscalculated "Madagascar" but even popular Japanese movies like "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke," the "anime" pictures that put director Hayao Miyazaki on the global filmmaking map.
The heroine is Sophie, a teenage shop clerk in a town where folks have noticed an uptick in fairy-tale phenomena. The evil Witch of the Waste is on the prowl again, and the walking castle of a mysterious wizard named Howl is often seen lumbering through the countryside. Everyone takes these things in stride, since fantastic things are normal to the denizens of fantastic stories.
Sophie is content as an ordinary girl, rarely thinking of adventure or romance. Everything changes when the Witch of the Waste walks into the hat boutique and casts a spell on her, transforming her from an 18-year-old waif to an elderly crone. Fleeing the city, Sophie seeks refuge in Howl's bizarre home. There she meets a talking fire named Calcifer, under enchantment like herself, and eventually Howl himself, who turns out to be a rascally sorcerer with lots of aliases and girlfriend problems.
This is only the set-up for a movie full of surprising twists and amusing turns. Sophie has more encounters with the Witch of the Waste, who becomes continually less potent as the story unfolds. Her curse on Sophie must remain, though, because that's a spell the hag has never learned how to undo.
Mr. Miyazaki's epic is coming to American theaters (courtesy of the Disney studio) in both dubbed and subtitled versions. Subtitles are always preferable in live-action movies. But animations are different, and the English-language version of "Howl" benefits from marvelous voice-acting by the likes of Christian Bale as the castle's proprietor, Jean Simmons as Sophie in her old-woman mode, Billy Crystal as the talkative fireplace flame, and Lauren Bacall as the wicked witch.
Most of all, though, it benefits from Miyazaki's abundant visual imagination, which fills the screen with eye-dazzling wonders. You run across animation this ingenious about as often as a moving castle comes your way.
• Rated PG; contains mild scares.