Our review of Castle In The Sky: Two-Disc Special Edition, published March 10th, 2010, is also available.
"When you fell from the sky, my heart started racing. I knew something wonderful had begun."—Pazu
Pazu was minding his own business when the girl fell from the sky. She said her name was Sheeta, and she carried a luminescent stone that laughed at gravity. This was fine with Pazu: he had spent his whole life trying to defy gravity, trying to build an airplane to lift him up from his mining town and into the heavens. Pazu dreamed of accomplishing his long-gone father's one desire of finding the legendary floating city of Laputa. Was it chance or fate that brought to his doorstep the last princess of this castle in the sky?
And could Pazu and Sheeta find Laputa again before the pirates, the soldiers, and the sinister aristocrat Muska got there first and unlocked the devastating secrets its inhabitants left behind centuries ago?
The stunning success of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind caught them all by surprise. It was, after all, Miyazaki's first solo film, the first based on his own characters, rather than contract work for another studio. It was based on a then-unfinished manga epic, and the story had to be compressed to fit a feature film. But Hayao Miyazaki and his producing partner Isao Takahata understood that the film's success at the box office created an opportunity to seize even more creative control over their films. So in 1985, they formed Studio Ghibli, after the nickname of an Italian airplane of World War II (a subject Miyazaki would later pay tribute to in Porco Rosso). Their first film needed to be a crowd pleaser, an adventure that could appeal to all ages and put the new studio on the map.
Miyazaki turned once again to his love of flying, so evident in Nausicaä. This time he would use as inspiration the adventures of Allan Quatermain and Indiana Jones (and a bit of the Japanese television series Future Boy Conan, on which he apprenticed), creating a steampunk world that fused late-Victorian culture with hints of advanced aerial technology. As far as his model for the hovering castle itself…
Jonathan Swift's floating island of Laputa appears in Book III of Gulliver's Travels as a satire on the pettiness of Britain's Royal Society, housing idiot scientists who invent ways to build houses from the roof down or generate books out of random collections of words "without the least assistance from genius or study." Swift was likely well aware that "Laputa" is a naughty word in Spanish. Whether Miyazaki did when making his film is another matter. In any case, Miyazaki's Laputa is also a dystopia of sorts. The ultimate desire hidden among the clouds, the city was home to a race of autocrats who used their advanced technology to dominate the people on the ground below. But why did they abandon their floating fortress 700 years ago? Was it, as the Tokuma storybook version of the film asserts, a "deadly epidemic?" Was it, as the film implies, a more psychological malaise? Had the people of Laputa, so high off the ground, somehow lost touch with their roots?
This question is the thematic heart of Castle in the Sky. Like all of Hayao Miyazaki's films, Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta (its Japanese title) is about balance: technology and nature, male and female, earth and air. Laputa is, at its best, the fusion of all things, all elements in harmony. It is paradise, but a paradise that can be exploited and corrupted all too easily. Through their levitation crystals (called "etherium" in the English dub), the Laputans had joined Earth and heaven. But in placing heaven above Earth, repudiating the ground in favor of pure flight, they became, literally and metaphorically, groundless.
Of course, for kids like Pazu, the thrill of flight overshadows any cautionary message that might be found in the fall of Laputa. He wants to escape Slag Ravine and soar among the clouds. He is an engaging young hero, one well suited to an action film like Castle in the Sky. And, as is characteristic of the female leads in Miyazaki's films, Sheeta is no wilting flower either, but a strong girl who can hold her own while still retaining a "feminine" identity. Miyazaki shows his skill at finding exactly what appeals to kids looking for high adventure: a crazy family of pirates (Dola and her gang), a thrilling train chase, a berserk robot (and plenty of fiery destruction), and an apocalyptic finale with a nearly endless stream of hair-raising stunts. Even for an animated film, the action is breathless and always engaging.
As part of its distribution deal with Studio Ghibli, Disney presents a two-disc set of Miyazaki's spirited Castle in the Sky—finally. Actually, Disney dubbed the film back in 1998, promising to follow up on their VHS release of Kiki's Delivery Service (there was even a trailer on that tape). Miyazaki fans have been waiting ever since. The wait was worth it. Presented in a beautiful anamorphic transfer, this easily outshines any of the bootlegs I've been forced to watch over the years. And the English dub is not too bad either. Anna Paquin turns turn in an adequate performance as Sheeta. James Van Der Beek is pretty stiff as Pazu, but not enough to drag down the picture, and particularly entertaining voice work is provided by the stalwart Mark Hamill (Muska) and Cloris Leachman (Dola). While the English script lacks the clean elegance of Neil Gaiman's work on Princess Mononoke, it gets the job done.
There are a few differences between the English dub (presented in Dolby 5.1) and the original Japanese track (presented in 2.0). Disney's dub has a habit of embellishing on the script by adding exposition where Miyazaki trusts the visuals (and judicious silence) to carry the story. They never overstep their bounds however, and remain pretty faithful to the original. The most significant change is a completely reorchestrated score by Joe Hisaishi. Hollywood filmmaking takes as its musical model German Romanticism, where music is keyed to every action. Compare the film's original score (on the Japanese language track), where long stretches go by without Hisaishi's music, to the new, more expansive score, with broader use of the orchestra. Miyazaki enthusiastically approved the new score, and for good reason: Hisaishi's work here is more complex and mature.
But, there is no clear reason why this is a two-disc set. Disc two is taken up entirely by the film's storyboards, synched to your choice of the English or Japanese soundtracks. On Disc One, Disney offers a minute-long introduction by John Lasseter of Pixar, a four-minute puff piece with some of the English language cast (where they curiously fail to mention that the movie came before their performances and that they are only post-synching rather than creating original characters), and the Japanese trailers. The entire second disc thing is rather a tease here: Disney could have easily offered the storyboards as an alternate angle. Of course, that would mean they could not pretend that this was a deluxe edition with a higher price point.
Oh well, the real appeal here is the movie. Miyazaki's action setpieces, especially the joyous flying sequences, keep the energy up for the two-hour running time. Castle in the Sky is also his most accessible film to American audiences, making it ideal for the average family. There is little conspicuously "foreign" here to make newcomers to anime to feel out of the cultural loop, so the film can also serve as an introduction to Japanese animation for those who are still apprehensive about the genre.
Castle in the Sky may not have the thematic complexity of Miyazaki's other films, but it is perhaps his most satisfying in terms of sheer adventure. This is what critics mean when they call far lesser films "rollercoaster rides." With strong characters and constant surprises, Castle in the Sky is exuberant and ever light on its feet.
Disney gets a slap on the wrist for minor infractions, particularly spreading this package out to two discs and overcharging for a film every family should own. All charges are dismissed against Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. They may fly where they please.
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