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Though unintelligible at times, Miyazaki's 'Castle' is magical

I suppose even Monet had his off days.

''Howl's Moving Castle," the new film by the Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, comes on the heels of a pair of flat-out masterpieces: 1997's ''Princess Mononoke" and 2001's ''Spirited Away." It contains 10 times more imagination, wonder, and sheer visual beauty than anything you'll find in Hollywood animation or boilerplate Japanese anime these days. And it's a disappointment -- the first film in which the filmmaker's obsessions have got the better of him.

That said, I can't recommend the film highly enough, since bad Miyazaki is still leagues better than anyone else. Until ''Howl's Moving Castle" starts collapsing under its own weight, it touches on deep wellsprings of myth and fairy tale, and it features one of the more refreshing heroines in modern movies: a girl who is magically transformed into an old lady and decides she likes it. Even after the film devolves into busy shards of private meaning, many of those shards are worth keeping.

One caveat: While ''Castle" will be showing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Kendall Square in both an English-language dub and a subtitled Japanese print (check theater listings for specific times), only the former was made available for preview by Disney, the film's distributor. Because critics weren't able to see the original version, it's impossible to tell whether the translation is at fault. My guess is that it's not, and that the dense layers of symbolism and archetype that overwhelm the story are the filmmaker's doing. (The Loews Boston Common will show only the dubbed version.)

''Castle" takes place in deepest Miyazaki-land: a vaguely European, vaguely late-19th-century world of Victorian architecture, outlying villages, and futuristic airships hovering against mountainous landscapes. The local bogeyman is a young mystic-noble named Howl (voiced by Christian Bale or Takuya Kimura, depending on which version you're seeing), who lives in a ramshackle mansion that traverses the countryside on giant chicken feet. Right there is a detail even the gurus at Pixar couldn't come up with.

Howl is rumored to tear the hearts out of young women, but an adolescent hat maker named Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Chieko Baisho) isn't scared, even after she bumps into him one dark and stormy night and the handsome wizard takes her for a walk on air, the better to escape several menacing black glop-creatures. Sophie knows she's too plain-looking to attract Howl's interest.

Just to make sure, the vain, fat-swaddled Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall/Akihiro Miwa) lays a curse on the girl that ages her into an 80-year-old and gives her the voice of actress Jean Simmons. After some initial panic, Sophie is unfazed. ''This isn't so bad now, is it?" she says to herself. ''You're still in pretty good shape and your clothes finally fit you."

Leaving home, Sophie moves into Howl's castle and sets herself up as his cleaning lady, befriending the wizard's boy assistant (Josh Hutcherson/Ryunosuke Kamiki) and winning over the castle's governing spirit, a chatty fire demon named Calcifer. I can't imagine what Japanese actor Tasuya Gashuin did with this role, but presumably he didn't envision the straight-outta-Brooklyn flame sprite that Billy Crystal has come up with.

There's more -- lots more. The country is at war with its neighbor, and harsh scenes of air and sea battle punctuate the film, letting Miyazaki once more vent his disgust at mankind's love of bloodshed. The king is being advised by a wizardress named Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner/Haruko Kato), who has turned the local magicians into warrior drones; she's steamed that Howl hasn't followed suit. This may be because he is, in reality, a giant bird-monster. Yes, he is.

A similar plot device cropped up in ''Spirited Away," but there it was organic to the tale. The monstrous alter ego here may again symbolize the hero's immaturity and lack of control, but, really, only if you're writing a thesis paper. In practice it's the first drop in the film's slowly filling bucket of incomprehensibility.

Better, then, to focus on what ''Castle" does magically right. Miyazaki's love of characters who change their natures persists. The evil Witch of the Waste loses her sting and becomes an endearing sidekick; the heroic Howl is revealed to be an insecure wreck. Sophie herself is an unexpected mixture of romantic yearning and hardheaded sensibility, and her age seems to shift with her emotional state. (That's not even metaphor, that's psychological truth.) There's also one purely poetic character: a mute and benignly possessed scarecrow whose outstretched arms hint at Christian allegory and who is always there when needed. What ultimately happens to him neatly sums up where the film has lost its way.

As usual, the visuals bloom with almost fetishistic loveliness. No one does smoke and sky like Miyazaki, or the hush that surrounds a pastoral landscape; no one attends to the detail of a milliner's shop with such baroque, breathtaking detail. At its best, ''Howl's Moving Castle" offers a rich fantasy of adolescent escape, of romance in the old and epic sense. At its worst, it's the most amazing 12-course meal you can't bring yourself to finish.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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