Disney // 1986 // 125 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 10th, 2010
From award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki.
Castle in the Sky is the earliest and best example of the creative talent animator and director Hayao Miyazaki would come to develop during his illustrious and influential career. It is well known in North America, but not as well regarded as his later work; an unfortunate oversight if you ask this Judge. Now re-released by Disney in a two-disc set, it is the perfect opportunity for people to re-visit this classic animation -- or even discovers it for the first time. And yes, it's absolutely worth discovering.
Young Pazu, an engineering apprentice in a small mining town, catches a glimpse of a strange sight: a young girl falling slowly from the sky. He rushes to her aid and discovers Sheeta, a girl with a mysterious past and a glowing crystal around her neck. They discover they are both searching for the same thing -- Laputa, a mysterious floating castle in the sky. For Pazu, he wants nothing more than to take to the skies and fly. For Sheeta, she needs to discover the truth about her life and her family connection to Laputa.
Unfortunately, they're not the only ones looking for the secrets of Laputa. A group of notorious and wily sky pirates are in hot pursuit of Sheeta. To make matters worse, the army wants to capture the technologically advanced castle for their own nefarious gain. Who will reach the castle in the sky first?
Castle in the Sky is not the first film to be directed by Miyazaki, or the first to be written by him. It is, however, the first film created by Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's own production and animation company. As such, it is seen by many as the first true representation of the man's genius. Call it a preview of the prolific influence he would ultimately have in the industry, both in Japan and in North America. In retrospect, this straightforward adventure story may seem silly, even Lilliputian when compared to the magnanimous works of Ghibli in its later years, but everyone starts somewhere -- and even a rough-around-the-edges Miyazaki fantasy is still heads above almost everything else.
Loosely inspired by the work of Jonathan Swift and his floating island, Castle in the Sky introduces many of the defining Miyazaki elements to audiences, albeit in early form. One could never call any film by the legendary animator "crude," but let's be realistic here: this is a film from 1986, and the art, the style and the design has come a long way in our lifetime. Only Miyazaki could envision sky pirates as wearing hot pink pants and orange balaclavas. If that doesn't show an innovative mind, nothing does.
Fashion pairings aside, consider the art design; a perplexing and seemingly contradictory blend of Victorian-era steampunk, pipes, tubes and mechanical gears mixed with organic and nature-influenced elements, like airships with dragonfly wings all painted elaborate colors. This is Miyazaki in all his creative glory; blending genres, styles and influences into a hodge-podge of creative wonder. Or consider the thematic elements; young children in revolt against an organized army of adults looking to exploit and cause destruction to the world around them, ignorant to the beauty around them. Technology and nature: dualistic elements that find perfect balance and harmony in the mythical city of Laputa -- but only after all the human inhabitants have mysteriously vanished. Anyone versed in Studio Ghibli's work over the last two decades should find this all very familiar.
Where many people find Castle in the Sky lacking is in the story; a fairly by-the-books romantic adventure full of adventure and action, but light on substance. The simplistic narrative is quick paced, but feels insubstantial, overly traditional and predictable. Here is where things divide between two camps of Ghibli aficionados -- those who grew up with the film and adoring its childlike exuberance, pace and wonderment, and those who came to the film later after seeing films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or Kiki's Delivery Service. For the latter group, some find it challenging to appreciate the film based solely on its relatively simplistic merits. Both arguments have merit, honestly. Many people laude Castle in the Sky for its nostalgic importance on a personal level, but far less would extol its values as the "best" Miyazaki film.
Thankfully, no one can argue Castle in the Sky is anything but entertaining. From start to finish, this is arguably the most energetic and fast-paced film the studio has made; a veritable roller coaster ride of chase sequences, airship battles, pirate raids, explosions and invasions, cumulating in a massive battle atop a flying castle. It may lack depth, but it's an adventure that hits all the right elements for great entertainment. The animation is a bit stiff by modern standards, but only on first glance; it doesn't take long to become lost in the dazzling elaborate hand-drawn detail, the creative splendor of robots, air ships and railway track tanks. Simple movements, like a character running, or a cloud of dust take on an almost reverential level of detail and precision. Watching this film, it is easy to appreciate how Miyazaki's work is so respected in the industry. For a film twenty five years old, this is a marvelous animation achievement.
Anyone already in possession of the 2003 two-disc release of Castle in the Sky will find little has changed in the re-released Castle in the Sky: Two-Disc Special Edition, at least in terms of technical presentation. It was a great presentation then, and it remains a great presentation today. Colors are immaculate; vivid primary color tones leap off the screen with crispness and clarity, exactly as one would expect from a Miyazaki film. Detail is sharp, and some sequences are literally picturesque. You can see each individual detail and brush stroke in the background animation cells. Contrast and detail levels are very sharp. Flecks and white spotting are evident throughout the transfer and can be distracting, but hey; this is animation a quarter-century old, after all. A little bit of that is to be expected.
Audio (at least according to the packaging) gets the remastered treatment and comes in an English 5.1 surround dub, featuring competent voice acting by James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill (identical to the previous release). If you like English dubs, this one does the job well enough, I suppose (especially Leachman and Hamill's performance) but it can feel a bit stiff at times, and adds unnecessary bits of dialogue not present in the Japanese version. Dialogue is clear and balance is good, with a reasonable amount of environmental action in rear channels, but bass response is on the low side. A French 5.1 presentation and a Japanese 2.0 presentation are also included. The Japanese dub is the preferred method from a purist standpoint, but the dialogue has a flat, trebly tone that makes it punchy and uncomfortable to listen to. A shame that more work did not go into restoring and mixing this track to modern standards.
The score is marvelous, but interestingly a contentious issue itself. Composed by the marvelous Joe Hisaishi, the original score was fleshed out, expanded and re-composed into a full-blown orchestral affair by Hisaishi for the North American release. Those who grew up with pre-Disney versions of this film often complain the new score lacks the charm and nostalgia of the original, but for most people, they won't even know it's gone. In a perfect world, it would have been nice to see it finally re-emerge, but alas. Either way, the score is beautiful; it sounds great here.
Extras are where Castle in the Sky: Two-Disc Special Edition differentiates itself from the previous edition. The primary feature is "The World of Ghibli," divided between childlike content ("Enter the Lands") and adult ("Behind the Studio"). "Enter the Lands" acts as a Studio Ghibli primer, offering up character information and story synopsis of other Miyazaki films -- a nice touch for newcomers, but little value here for seasoned fans. For the latter, head over to "Behind the Studio," where we get new interviews with Hayao Miyazaki, character bios, story synopsis, behind-the-scenes footage at Studio Ghibli about the making-of Castle in the Sky, original Japanese trailers, character sketches and more. At the end of the day, it only amounts to maybe a half an hour of material, but it is of reasonable quality.
For storyboard fans, the original Japanese boards are included, paired against the film audio track -- a heck of a commitment to sit down and go through, but it's there if you want it...although having it sequestered on the second disc seems like a waste of space. Wouldn't it have been better to have this as a feature on the first disc that could be toggled on via the angle feature? Oh well. Also tossed in for good measure is a handsome lithograph printed on card stock included in the packaging -- a nice little keepsake for fans. You could frame it, if you were especially nerdy, and had frames sitting around the size of postcards.
As good as these Disney Studio Ghibli releases are, they're still Disney releases, so you take the good with the bad: gobs of trailers stuck at the start, pointless introduction by John Lasseter wedged in between you and your enjoyment of this film; all of which are obstacles that must overcome each and every time you watch the film.
In terms of value, if you have Disney's previous two-disc release of Castle in the Sky from 2003, you've basically got this release, minus the new Studio Ghibli interactive content; so unless you've got a hankering for supplementary features, you can hold onto your existing copy.
It may lack the sophistication and thematic complexity that define later films, but Castle in the Sky remains one of the greatest Studio Ghibli titles. Here we see Hayao Miyazaki establishing the groundwork that would later lead to the most influential and astonishing animation career imaginable -- and yet people too often pass this film over, writing it off as overly simplistic and primitive. If nothing else, here's hoping this re-issue changes this impression.
Castle in the Sky: Two-Disc Special Edition is a great title to add to your collection if you missed out on the 2003 version, but the extra content is not worth the double dip.
Review content copyright © 2010 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG