Howl's Moving Castle is the latest enchantment from animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, whose Spirited Away won an Oscar and many fans in 2003. Transformed by a jealous witch into an aged crone, our young heroine Sophie leaves town to find employment in the wizard Howl's amazing castle - a wheezing, yomping monstrosity of the Terry Gilliam school - and is swept into a baffling and bizarre fable that enchants and amuses but never delivers on its magical promise.
The tale is set in a 19th-century Europe caught unsettlingly between industry and magic, wizardry and war, potions and propaganda. Because his castle doors open magically into kingdoms on either side of the conflict, the strangely immature Howl is called to fight for both. Sophie and a crackpot array of supporting characters - a fire demon, a pogo-ing, turnip-headed scarecrow and a rather cute dog - find themselves in a worsening situation, from which Howl is increasingly absent.
Howl's aliases - Jenkins, Pendragon - are not the only survivors of Welsh author Dianne Wynne Jones' original novel, but enough liberties have been taken with plot and characterisation to create confusion. Youngsters and Miyazaki fans will coo at the world's depth and rich surreality, but opaque plotting, and a tendency to mope with Sophie whilst Howl is off affecting events let the momentum of the first act vanish into thin air. By the, shall we say, enigmatic ending, not even the relentlessly exuberant eye-candy can summon it back.