I have to admit I was hooked from the first scene, where the amazing, immense contraption that gives this film its title emerges through a brown, dusty fog. Although based on a story by Diana Wynne Jones, this adaptation could only come from Miyazaki: it's full of breathtaking landscapes, valiant, but not always clear-cut battles between good and evil, and odd, endearing-if-not-quite-cuddly little creatures and inventions that are emblematic of his oeuvre.

Set in an early-20th century England on the outbreak of war, 18-year-old Sophie is suddenly transformed into a 90-year-old woman by the wicked, zaftig Witch of the Waste. She sets off to the towering hills beyond town to seek a witch or wizard that can help her break the curse. She soon takes up residence with Howl, a handsome but troubled young wizard who travels around in an enormous, multi-tiered, forever-morphing makeshift mansion with feet.

From there, the narrative gets a little tangled as identities shift, motives are revealed/changed, and characters try to figure out how to break their spells. This isn't as ingenuous (or coherent) as SPIRITED AWAY; while Sophie is a richly-drawn protagonist, her plight doesn't seem nearly as urgent as Chihiro's was in the previous film. Still, it makes for another sumptuous, witty, artful feast for the eyes that's easy to get swept up in.

Given where it takes place, the English dub seems less jarring than in other Miyazaki pictures. For every campy minute of Billy Crystal as fire demon Calcifer (at least he's more restrained than Robin Williams would've been), you get to enjoy the perfectly-cast tones of veteran actresses Jean Simmons (as old Sophie) and Lauren Bacall (as the Witch). Christian Bale also hits just the right blend of heroism and narcissism as Howl.