Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Castle in the Sky
Blu-Ray + DVD
Legends tell of a lost kingdom called "Laputa" that flies above the clouds and bears riches, arcane knowledge, and power beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Far away in a small mine on the earth below, Pazu is too busy trying to earn his daily bread to worry about any of those things, but he does remember his late father's stories of the fantastical place, and the cloudy picture his dad took of Laputa on one of his last flights through a frightful storm.
So when a mysterious girl named Sheeta floats down from the sky into his arms, wearing an etherium crystal connected to the royal family of that long-forgotten kingdom, Pazu's mind starts racing. Maybe they could find Laputa (and Sheeta's lost family) together, and he could make his father proud by bringing back evidence of the land once and for all. Unfortunately, Laputa's riches, knowledge, and power are a much bigger draw for the wicked forces of Colonel Muska's army, and a misunderstood gang of pirates led by kooky matriarch Dola. Pazu and Sheeta must protect the crystal from the greed that surrounds them, and discover Laputa's true secrets for themselves if they want to protect the earth they call home.
Released in 1986, Castle in the Sky is Studio Ghibli's first feature film in title only. Miyazaki already had two films under his belt showcasing his animation style and passionate, personal beliefs. (Nausicaä's ideas are plain on its face, but even the madcap Castle of Cagliostro has that thoughtful last ten minutes.) His second film, Nausicaä, was produced under Isao Takahata with much of the same production team that would follow them to the newly formed Studio Ghibli for Castle in the Sky. So what, if anything, does the movie Joe Hisaishi refers to as "a simple adventure for kids and families" in the on-disc extras of this newest release, bring to the table that other Ghibli films do not?
Castle in the Sky (or "Laputa" as it is often not titled because that sounds like a not-so-romantic word in several romantic languages,) often feels caught between worlds in the Ghibli oeuvre. It's "early Miyazaki," but doesn't have the unchained, maverick appeal of Cagliostro or Nausicaä. It has simpler, more conventional narrative ambitions than either of those more unusual films. It's family-friendly Miyazaki, but falls short of the Ghibli ideal there as well. Laputa doesn't have the innocence and accessibility of Totoro or Spirited Away. Its "child-friendly" story is buried in stacks of dialogue and a surprising amount of worldbuilding, not to mention all the doomsday weapons, firearms pointed at children, and mass background character death. So it's also "thoughtful message Miyazaki," but gets overshadowed in that department by more mature and complex takes on its themes, seen in Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke.
From every new angle it's examined, Castle in the Sky seems like the jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none in Miyazaki's portfolio. The auteur's body of work is so impressive that it's still a high bar and an exceptional fantasy film, but the question remains: does Castle in the Sky capture viewers' hearts in any specific way that other Miyazaki films don't? Almost 40 years later, is there anything enduringly "special" about the very first Studio Ghibli film?
At first glance, there's the aesthetic. The movie opens with an action scene showcasing Miyazaki's love of Jules Verne's fantasy engineering, featuring Muska's blimp and Dola's buzzing fliers. As the movie progresses, these turn-of-the-century what-if machines become stars of the film in their own right, as Pazu marvels at the presence of an automobile in his small town, or wonders at the construction behind an airship made of cloth. Unlike the more organic flying machines of Nausicaä or other Ghibli works, Laputa's innovations have a deliberately imperfect, human-hammered rust to them, from the mining elevators deep in the earth to the whipping propellers of the Laputians' lost kingdom. The fabled Laputa is refined compared to the simpler civilization beneath it, but in the end it's just another man-made creation. People like Pazu and Sheeta can't comprehend how it works, but adults "of the world" like Muska can, and they're not any more enlightened for it. Several haunting shots directly comparing the castle's weaponry to devastating instruments of WWII confirm that there's no "magic" here. All lingering aspects of the supernatural have been stripped away in Laputa's world, where even the mystical power of "etherium" has a scientific explanation and is mined for practical use.
On closer inspection, Castle in the Sky is Miyazaki's only pure science fiction film. With the exception of Cagliostro and The Wind Rises, all his other work trades in fantasy and the supernatural in some way, but not this movie. His trademark environmental concerns and social ideas are present as always, but without the earth's personification as a sentient force to be understood, the story is left only with the human element within progress vs. conservationism. Devoid of an "earth with an opinion," Castle in the Sky frames mankind's progress and its effects on the earth as not only our own responsibility, but our own consequence. Neglect of the earth leads to neglect of curiosity and empathy in our own hearts. Technology should be a bridge for connecting souls, as seen when one of Laputa's combat robots finds new purpose in taking care of nature, or Pazu's ability to connect with his deceased father by following his flight path through the clouds. Humanity might survive just fine if we destroyed the natural world around us through industrialization or war, but our souls would be lesser for it. This "simple family adventure" is ultimately one of Miyazaki's most human movies, concerned with interpersonal emotion and the human spirit above all else.
This glorification of human passion and imagination contributes to the film's warm, loud, emotional honesty. Castle in the Sky's villains are shamelessly wicked, its heroes are bold and open-hearted, and its comical pirate gang is only as pirate-y as need be to support their enormous family's freedom in the open skies. The movie's reliance on broad archetypes could potentially make its characters less engaging, but thanks to some key ties that bind these basic heroes and thugs together, Castle in the Sky's simple characterization has the opposite effect. All of Laputa's characters are in search of "family," from the lead orphans' need for new roots to the pirates' kin-based raison d'etre. Even the evil Muska believes that his heritage has blessed him with glorious purpose, and the military's greed and ambition is couched in platitudes about the "nation's glory," a macrocosmic family under one flag against the world. (Muska is only trusted because he can speak this patriotic language, even though it's an entirely different "family" that he's interested in.)
It's simple and maybe even corny, but Castle in the Sky's characters are united by love for one another, as the film asserts that family is not something you are born into with any kind of guarantee of power or support, but something you find for yourself through the unconditional love of others. ("No matter how great your technology might be, the world cannot live without love" is definitely the line of the film, for good or for ill.) It's not all platitudes, as the movie often slows down to linger on Sheeta and Pazu's affection for one another, or Dola's relationship with her husband and pile of pirate sons. This sympathetic yearning in our heroes creates a strong emotional backbone for the more obvious draw of the film: high-action, high-concept fantasy adventure filled with mysterious lost technology, exploding robots, and tons of thrilling triggers for the acrophobic. It's a unique and engrossing adventure movie packed with captivating visual ideas and great action scenes, but the film could not thrive without the love it also holds in abundance.
Disney's blu-ray transfer is excellent, bringing out the strong, beautiful lines in the sepia-tone "flashback sketches" throughout the film and the bold greens and blues of Laputa's treetop gardens or its scenes of red and orange decimation. Special features are largely carryovers from Disney's most recent printing of the DVD, which include Japanese trailers, an option to watch the movie in storyboard form, interviews with Miyazaki on setting and machine design, a short interview with Joe Hisaishi on the musical themes of many Ghibli films including Laputa, an interview with Toshio Suzuki about how he first met Miyazaki (under not-so-friendly terms), and last but not least, a cute and hokey "Behind the Microphone" feature for the English dub. (Mark Hamill mentions giving Muska a Mid-Atlantic accent to fit his not-quite-British but not-quite-American appearance. So that's what that was!)
On the note of the English dub, purists may be relieved to hear that this blu-ray release has purged the more comical line additions from Jack Fletcher's original dub and restored the original 1986 musical score, resulting in a more faithful audio experience to the original Japanese release of the film. (The English dub overall is well-done and fits the tone of the film perfectly, but also has a more cartoony and maverick edge to it than most of Disney's modern efforts, so reactions may be divided to wacky choices like James Van Der Beek as Pazu.) Unfortunately, this is a severe "one man's trash" situation for some fans who preferred Hisaishi's much "noisier" but also more modern re-orchestration for the film: it's nowhere on this release at all. Comparing the two soundtracks side-by-side, it's easy to see why Hisaishi and Miyazaki firmly approved of the 90-minute orchestral extension to the film's original 39 minutes of music, most of it on synthesizer. It may not be how Laputa was originally released to audiences in 1986, but the re-scoring complements the film much better, while the original score is so sparse it can weigh the film's quiet moments down rather than lifting them up, and its reliance on the synthesizer is mostly distracting in its cheapness. (It's a more minor alteration, but the film's original sound effects have also been restored for this release, and they too are somewhat "dated and cheesy" compared to Disney's commissioned updates.) Despite the blu-ray's restoration of the film's original content in almost every other regard, for some reason this release is dubtitled, where Disney's original 2010 re-issue of the DVD was not. No matter what version of Castle in the Sky you're a fan of, there's some audio-related downer for you on this otherwise pristine release of an excellent film.
In the proud lineup of Ghibli's cinematic accomplishments, Castle in the Sky tends to stand out of sight more than its ambitious or controversial comrades. It's just a simple adventure with endearing characters told well, aided by a standout visual aesthetic and Ghibli's always excellent animation team. Its story is definitely one of Miyazaki's most cohesive, giving the audience time to think and feel in-between all the easy-to-follow excitement. Its ideas are familiar but fervent, and it communicates them in ways that speak to people of all ages for different reasons. Castle in the Sky is the Ghibli film that features a holocaustic explosion followed shortly by a fart joke. For these and many other reasons, it's a valuable part of Miyazaki's canon: accessible, fun, and wearing its big heart firmly on its sleeve.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Timeless and emotionally rich fantasy adventure, fun cast of lovable characters, breathtaking animation and novel takes on Jules Verne designs, gorgeous blu-ray transfer
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