IT'S EASIER TO SAY what "Howl's Moving Castle" isn't than to say what it is. And one thing the feature-length animation from Hayao ("Spirited Away") Miyazaki isn't is a faithful rendition of the Diana Wynne Jones fantasy novel on which the movie is supposed to be based, about a misunderstood wizard named Howl (voice of Christian Bale) who travels around the countryside in a movable castle.
This would be true even if one accepts that, as with all adaptations, some parts are going to have to be cut or changed. But where is the dog-man of the book? Miss Angorian? The love stories involving Lettie and Martha? And why is Howl's apprentice, Michael, called Markl here, turned from a youthful, but not infantile, boy into a Margaret Keane-eyed tyke from a Saturday morning children's cartoon? Is it pure spite or marketing savvy? Finally, can somebody please explain why Calcifer, Howl's fire-demon servant and right-hand man, who is crusty, blue and lovable in the book, has to be cutesy, orange and obnoxious in the movie (not to mention voiced by Billy Crystal, channeling his inner schmo from Long Island, when he clearly should be played by someone like, say, Ian Holm).
Finally? Did I say finally? Just about the only thing this "Howl" gets right -- and that's only because Jones doesn't describe it with that much physical detail, but rather leaves it to the reader's imagination -- is the castle itself, which Miyazaki imagines as not so much a floating edifice of stone and turrets as a cross between a tank, tree house and one of the sets from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" . . . mounted on legs. That I liked. Powered by Calcifer, it shudders and heaves across the hills and valleys of Ingary (the magical land where the story takes place) with believably precarious heft.
As for the rest of it . . .
Who is this Witch of the Waste we see on the screen? The book's main villain -- so grand and scary on the page when she casts a spell on the heroine Sophie, turning her from a young girl (Emily Mortimer) into an old woman (Jean Simmons) and setting the story in motion -- becomes, in Miyazaki's retelling, a jiggling blob of flesh that looks like the love child of Jabba the Hutt and Dame Edna Everage. Then, abomination of abominations, the character (Lauren Bacall) actually turns into something far worse -- in other words, something cuddly. And where her flubbery henchmen came from, I can only guess. Not the book, and they're certainly not as terrifying as they're meant to be.
That's one of the main problems with the movie: While Miyazaki manages to hang on to some of the darker elements of the book, which primarily has to do with the complex, often bumpy relationship between the brooding Howl and the kindhearted Sophie, who seeks refuge in his castle, it's far too cute for its own good, in a "Pokemon" kind of way. Where Jones's book included people whose heads have been separated from their bodies via enchantment, Miyazaki's anime translation, on the other hand, is full of "Yu-Gi-Oh!"-style supernatural hooey, and it's never particularly threatening.
Speaking of enchantment, that's the ultimate thing missing from "Howl's Moving Castle." That and soul. It's not so much that Jones's oh-so-tweedy British style has been blandly Americanized in this Japanese-made, Disney-distributed version (with the exception of Mortimer and Simmons, all the vocal talent use Yankee accents, even Bale, who is Welsh). It's that Miyazaki, like an evil sorcerer, has plucked the heart out of Jones's story and left it there to die.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (PG, 110 minutes) -- Contains some mildly scary images and a brief glimpse of Howl's naked rear end. Area theaters.