Dir: Hayao Miyazaki.Japan. 2004. 117mins.

Japanese animation geniusHayao Miyazaki's follow-up to the international critical and box-office hit SpiritedAway is as visually inventive and unremittingly charming as itspredecessor. By turns funny, exhilarating and touching, it lacks only onething: the spiritual and metaphysical depth that made Spirited Away sucha haunting experience.

While this will not botherMiyazaki's legion of fans one jot, it may limit the crossover audience thatgave the director's previous an unusually wide target audience, from kids'matinee to late-night arthouse. The film premiered in competition at Venice andopens in Japan in November; as with Spirited Away, Buena Vista has USrights among others.

Although Spirited Awaydelighted in fantasy digression, its basic premise was an almost Wizard-of-Ozstruggle of feisty little Chihiro trying to escape from a magic kingdom. Theplot-spring of Howl's Moving Castle, which is based on a children's bookby British author Diane Wynne Jones, is less easy to identify.

Sure, it has something to dowith the struggle of poor little hatgirl Sophie to break the spell which theWicked Witch of the Waste has placed on her, turning the prettyeighteen-year-old-lass into a wizened and stooped old lady. But it also hassomething to do with the dashing, petulant and vain young magician, Howl, whosaves Sophie from some macho soldiers at the beginning of the yarn.

Howl owns a moving castle -a magnificent, Gilliam-esque castle that strides across the country on chickenlegs, one part pirate ship, one part dinosaur, and one part fortified village.When Sophie - unrecognisable in her old lady shell - goes to work for Howl ashousekeeper, the break-the-spell plot veers towards a budding love story, andboth eventually slip away to reveal the film's true nature: it's a pure,what-the-hell slice of manga fantasy.

There is so much to delightus along the way, though, that it hardly matters if we drop a plot stitch ortwo. The first is the setting, a sort of steam age Middle Europe around 1900,with half-timbered houses, Edwardian fashions and curious flying machines. Awar is going on in this indeterminate land, which is an audience-enhancingblend of a number of European countries (at one point, when Sophie hides in ahotel storeroom, we see boxes with labels in German and Italian; but the townshave English names, like Kingsbury and Porthaven).

The war theme unleashes somedarkly indelible images: warships pass overhead with bombs nesting like eggs intheir bellies, and the bombardments, when they come, are crashingly real. Butthe whys and wherefores of the conflict are never explained, and it isdissolved with curious ease by a deus ex machina sleight of hand at the end.

Kids will love the sparkyfire demon that keeps Howl's castle loping along, and all will be fascinated bythe fantasy architecture of Howl's castle, which manages to be in four placesat once (castle inmates exit into one or the other location by turning acoloured disc by the front door).

Perhaps the richestcharacter is the Witch of the Waste, who comes to live in the castle after sheis transformed into an apparently harmless old multi-chinned woman who comes onlike a lobotomised former madame - but who gradually turns out to be sharperthan we had suspected.

The 2D animation is as sharpand colourful as we have come to expect fromStudio Ghibli (Howl's Moving Castle actually has a higher celcount than Spirited Away), with painterly backgrounds giving the celcharacters an almost 3D depth at times, though the sheer visual magic of thetrain journey in Spirited Away - surely Miyazaki's finest moment - isnot quite matched here.

Joe Hisaishi's lilting waltzsoundtrack anchors us firmly in fairyland; one only hopes that this is matchedby imaginative dubbing in key territories.

Prod cos: Studio Ghibli, Tokuma Shoten, Nippon TelevisionNetwork, Dentsu, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Mitsubishi, Toho
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch
Toshio Suzuki
Miyazaki, from the novel byDiana Wynne Jones
Joe Hisaishi
Main cast (voices):
ChiekoBaisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa