The plot centers around Sophie, a young woman settling into a circumscribed life as a milliner in the hat shop run by her glamorous stepmother. She incurs the wrath of the vicious Witch of the Wastes, who curses her to assume the form of an old woman. Feeling she now has nothing to lose, Sophie sets out in search of adventure, and finds it as housekeeper to the raffish wizard, Howl.
Howl is powerful and handsome, but also vain, shallow, and allegedly cowardly. Nevertheless, Sophie begins to have feelings for him as she carves a niche in his odd household, otherwise made up of the fire demon Calcifer and Markl, Howl's boy apprentice.
Events of the outer world intrude when Howl is summoned by the local King to assist in the war he is waging against neighbors he believes have done away with his son. Howl's attempts to at first avoid, and then fight against, the war put stresses on his physical, mental and magical being that jeopardize his humanity and sanity.
Miyazaki has done a beautiful job of bringing the story to screen. Fans will recognoze some design elements: for example, Old Sophie looks like the witch Yubaba from "Spirited Away" and Howl's birdlike flying form resembles her's in shillouette. I'm not sure if black, rubbery, flowing monstrosities are Miazaki's personal nightmare, but things of that nature show up here as well as in "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke." Miyazake indulges his love of flying machines by updating the story from Jones' purer fairy-tale land to a steam-punk vision including battleships, whale-like armored flyers, and personal flyers resembling a cross between a dragonfly and a surfboard, and apparently powered by springs. The sheer invention, including the organic designs of the aerial warcraft, is astonishing and shows up how pedestrian "Steamboy" was by comparison. Add to this, first, Miyazaki's trademark gorgeous landscapes. Second, some really frightening scenes wherein Sophie's home town is subjected to bombardment from the air by night. it might not have really looked real, but it FELT real, and I'm sure there's at least one person in Studio Ghibli who remembers what it was like to have the bombers overhead, with the bombs raining down into a largely wooden city. I must say, that this sequence had some of the most effective animation of fire I've ever experienced. There are other beautiful but understated elements as well, such as Howl's magpie-nest of a bedroom.
The anti-war plot line is Miyazki's addition to Jones' story, and I think it is an effective replacement for her side jaunt into modern-day "real-world" Wales, which I thought did not really add to the novel. The Witch of the Wastes, who is the chief villain of the book, gets reduced to a pitiable invalid part way through the movie, although she still can make trouble--. There are some other changes as well, such as combining Howl's old teacher and the King's royal wizard into one character, the formidable Madame Suliman, who would rather destroy Howl's powers than see him "turn to the dark side." This is all to the good, since it cuts down on unnecessary characters for the movie version.
Released in the US by Disney, the orginal has been well-dubbed into English with a marvellous vocal cast, including Christian ("Batman Begins") Bale as Howl, Jeanne Simmons as the aged Sophie, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Wastes, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, and the immediately recognizable Billy Crystal in a relatively restrained performance as Calcifer. Emily Mortimer, herself a veteran actress, provided the voice of young Sophie.
Highly reccommended. Although there is no sex, nudity, or profanity, Howl's transformations can be scary and the war scenes perhaps too intense for young children.