NEW YORK – When Hayao Miyazaki's (search) dreamy animated movies open in his home country of Japan, rabid fans turn out "Star Wars"-style, in around-the-block lines.
His latest, "Howl's Moving Castle (search)," shattered records there last November, staying atop the box office for seven weeks and becoming the third biggest blockbuster in Japanese history, behind "Titanic (search)" and Miyazaki's last film, "Spirited Away (search)."
But the English-dubbed versions of Miyazaki's films have never been mainstream hits in the United States.
Sadly, that probably won't change with this weekend's American release of "Howl," a funny, magical and completely beautiful adventure that opens in just a handful of New York and Los Angeles theaters.
"In the U.S., audiences are used to having everything spelled out, but Miyazaki leaves holes in the story," says Disney's Rick Dempsey, who codirected the "Howl" dub.
"You watch his films, and you feel like you're in a dream," he says.
That's certainly true with "Howl's Moving Castle," a decidedly trippy movie about an 18-year-old hatmaker named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) who gets turned into a 90-year-old woman by the enormously fat Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall).
Sophie heads into the countryside to find the witch and soon runs into the moving castle of the title -- a huffing, wheezing haunted house that walks on chicken legs, powered by a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal).
It gets even weirder from there, as Sophie falls in love with Howl, the lord of the castle (Christian Bale), a powerful wizard who, depending on when you catch him, is a blondhaired man, a dark-haired little boy or a huge bird with fangs.
But even as the plot of "Howl" spins off into outer space, Miyazaki always keeps the movie grounded with minutely observed details.
In one scene, for example, Sophie heaves a dog up the staircase of a royal palace, then drops him in exhaustion at the top.
"He lands on his back, and does this great scramble to get back on his feet -- just like a real dog would do," says the dub's other co-director, Pixar's Pete Docter, who directed "Monsters, Inc."
Miyazaki's movies are full of small moments like these -- in his classic "My Neighbor Totoro (search)," he stops the action just to show a puddle filling with raindrops - and together, they create an atmosphere that's intoxicating.
"Some Americans look at that and go, 'Whaaaat?' " Docter says.
"But you have to let it go. It makes sense emotionally."