Where to begin? This whimsical far-out fairy tale is almost impossible to synopsize but we'll give it a shot. Plain Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) who works all day in her family's hat shop has her life turned upside down when she meets the handsome and mysterious wizard Howl (voiced by Christian Bale). A jealous witch the obscenely obese Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) changes her into an old woman so Sophie has no choice but to hunt her down to get her to undo the spell. Along the way she runs into the amazing contraption of the title Howl's moving castle--a huge steam-driven mechanical house on legs where she meets Howl's minions--including a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal). She goes to work for him as his cleaning lady and together they fall in love stop a war and break all the evil spells they've been under.
The star of the show is Calcifer a wisecracking fire demon enslaved to Howl who keeps the castle running. Billy Crystal lends him the requisite air of self-centered petulance and humor. Lauren Bacall as the scheming Witch of the Waste simply purrs her lines with malevolence. Christian Bale's deep masculine voice is a bit of a disconnect at first with the androgynous-looking Howl but it slowly grows on you. Jean Simmons provides the voice of Sophie as an old woman while Emily Mortimer voices the younger version--quite a juggling act since Sophie keeps morphing back and forth from a bent-over-grandmother to being a wide-eyed young girl.
The film is beautiful to look at with stunningly rendered landscapes and fanciful creations such as the moving castle itself and Howl who can transform into a bird-like creature. Whereas Spirited Away was set in Japan this film like Miyazaki's earlier Kiki's Delivery Service is set in what seems to be an unspecified Western European country. The lead characters have that idealized pixie look that is sometimes at odds with the more sophisticatedly drawn backgrounds.