Creepy stuff happens almost from the opening scene of "Howl's Moving Castle": Black goo seeps out of paving stones and forms blobby evil beings from whom teenager Sophie and boy wizard Howl must escape.
Wonderful stuff happens, too, in this latest film from anime director Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes called the Walt Disney of Japan because his children's films are so popular there. "Howl's" plot revolves around Sophie's attempts to undo a witch's curse that has turned her into a wrinkled old woman.
But the best part is when the movie's terrifying moments mix with its wonderful ones -- and the thing that weirded you out a moment ago now makes you strangely happy. Or the character you liked suddenly reveals a flicker of ugliness.
The weird castle where Howl lives, for example, at first seems like a terrifying machine stomping across the landscape -- with its pumping pistons, grinding gears and mechanical chicken legs. Inside, however, the castle seems warm and cozy, and when it turns out to be a portal to other worlds, it's like something in a fabulous dream.
Dream-like scenes are something that moviegoers have come to expect from Miyazaki. His 2001 film, "Spirited Away," about a girl whose parents are turned into pigs, is Japan's biggest box office money-maker. And fans collect plush-toy versions of the cat bus and dust sprites in his 1988 classic, "My Neighbor Totoro."
American audiences have discovered Miyazaki, too. "Spirited Away" won a 2002 Academy Award, beating out "Lilo & Stitch" and "Ice Age."
Miyazaki's movies are different from computer-animated blockbusters. They are hand-drawn, detailed and realistic. Stormy purple skies and shimmering light on green leaves, for example, are achingly beautiful. And no character in a Miyazaki movie ever breaks out in a Disney-like show tune.
So when a dripping-goo monster, lumbering radish or tank-size slugs suddenly appear, it's much more shocking than in a movie that is cartoony, loud and crazy all the time.
Miyazaki movies aren't for everyone, though. The plots can be hard to follow. But if you give one of his movies a try, you might be rewarded with a great experience that seems totally new, yet strangely familiar.
-- Fern Shen