Castle in the Sky – Review

by Jon Turner

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Having scored a box office success with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki was on his way to becoming a respected animator in his native country of Japan.  Yet this was only the beginning; with the help of Isao Takahata, Miyazaki enlisted the backing of their financial distributor, Tokuma Shoten, to establish their own animation company, known today as Studio Ghibli.  Under this new facility, Miyazaki directed his third feature—and the first to be produced under the “Ghibli” banner – a rollicking, fast-paced action-adventure tale called Laputa:  The Castle in the Sky.  The basis for the film’s title is derived from Jonathan Swift’s famous book “Gulliver’s Travels”, in which there is a chapter dedicated to floating islands bearing the name “Laputa”.  But wait a minute—“Laputa” is an offensive phrase in Spanish.  Swift was aware of this when he wrote his book, but Miyazaki wasn’t.  It did cause for an obstacle in bringing the film stateside, though, hence it was decided to re-title the film as just Castle in the Sky for its North American release.  (So this is what I will be referring the film as from this point on.)  Initially, the film wasn’t as financially successful as Nausicaa in its Japanese debut, proving to be something of a box office disappointment.  But Castle in the Sky has nonetheless earned its legion of fans over the years and is today hailed as a classic… and rightfully so.

For viewers who may be more familiar with Miyazaki’s later work, such as Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and even Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky might seem more like a “simplistic” good vs. evil fairy tale, and it unashamedly is.  Its characters are based on “archetypes” and are consequently not as multi-layered as the aforementioned films.  That said, the film maintains all the ingredients for the kind of timeless classic Miyazaki is capable of:

Breathtaking animation?  Check.

A wondrous musical score?  Check.

A solid and intriguing plot?  Check.

An aural of warmth and wonder?  Check.

Memorable characters (despite the aforementioned issue)?  Check.

So in short, one can easily pinpoint how this movie differs from most of Miyazaki’s output, but there’s so much to appreciate in Castle in the Sky that one would be hard-pressed to dismiss it.

The film begins with a bang, literally, when a magnificent airship is attacked by a gang of “sky pirates” and their leader, a wizened but still vigorous woman named Dola.  The pirates are in search of the airship’s prisoner, a lonely little girl who has been taken away from her home.  Her name is Sheeta, and she possesses a crystal that contains mysterious powers.  Just when they are about to grab her, she escapes by climbing outside her cabin and dropping through the clouds.  (All of this, before the opening credits!) As she falls, the crystal around her neck sparkles to life, and Sheeta literally floats down from the sky, landing safely into the arms of Pazu, a boy her own age who works as a miner.

When she stirs from unconsciousness, Sheeta learns that Pazu is an instant friend and eager to help her in any situation.  But the genial youth has a tragic burden on his shoulders:  his late father once discovered a mysterious floating island named “Laputa” and took a picture of it while astride an airship, but nobody except Pazu believes it exists.  As further proof, he shows Sheeta a book which contains further evidence of Laputa, including its people and supposed treasures.  (In the original Japanese version, this is, in fact, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, but in the English language version, it is simply his father’s journal.) He is eager to clear his father’s tarnished name by building an airplane to discover Laputa for himself.  Just then, however, the two find themselves on the run from Dola and her sky pirates (which include a trio of burly but not very smart or brutish “boys” who refer to Dola as “mom”, when the latter always chides them, “Call me Captain!”).  After a thrilling chase on a train chugging over a steep chasm, Pazu and Sheeta escape into the mines where they meet a kindly old man named Uncle Pom, who “speaks” to the rocks underground—he tells them that Sheeta’s crystal is a long forgotten mineral (volucite in the original, aetherium in the English version) that was used to empower the island of Laputa.  If Sheeta’s crystal is misused, he warns, the world will suffer great unhappiness.  Pazu and Sheeta set off again, only to be captured by military soldiers under the command of the shady Colonel Muska, who, it turns out, is also interested in Sheeta’s crystal and will stop at nothing to unlock its darkest secrets.  In a surprising turn of events, Pazu is sent back home, where he finds Dola and her gang; these guys transition into true allies as they help Pazu rescue Sheeta and set off in search of Laputa before Muska does.

It’s not hard to guess how the story is going to turn out, but Miyazaki nonetheless manages to cram in enough interesting plot points, depth, and momentum to keep audiences interested for two full hours.  Part of this aspires to how he designs the world of Castle in the Sky.  Aside from settings underground, above ground, and, well, above the clouds, the artwork is rich with detail and imagination.  From Pazu’s simplistic hometown to the haunting caverns with shimmering rocks, from the dreary interiors of the army’s stronghold to the titular structure itself, everything is as fully realized and gorgeously rendered as any of Miyazaki’s other worlds.  Contrasting the primitive settings are the technological marvels that are very reminiscent of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  There are airships (from the ominously powerful, zeppelin-like Goliath that the army provides, and a much more run-down, comical craft called Tiger Moth), dragon-fly shaped flight-crafts called “flapters”, trains, and robots.  Yep, robots.  But don’t worry, these robots are not the kind of shapeshifting, bulky, heavily armored giants one would expect to see from, say, Transformers, but rather, they are more simplistic in design.  These robots are extremely powerful and can decimate anything with massive laser blasts, but at heart, they are gentle creatures who only serve to look out for remnants of the citizens of its home country.

Speaking of which, Miyazaki’s love for nature is also highlighted in this film:  in the latter half of the story, when our protagonists finally find Laputa, the wonders it holds are similarly fascinating.  At its heart–a grassy garden with beautiful plants, and a gargantuan tree serving as its center.  The only creatures who dwell there are the aforementioned robots as well as birds and little animals (in fact, the robots who protect the garden seem to be especially fond of the creatures).  In what may also be an amusing bonus, fox-squirrels from Nausicaa (probably Teto’s cousins) make a cameo appearance in this very scene.

Adding to the charm are the characters which populate this tale; Dola, in particular, is arguably the most memorable of the cast.  An initially gruff and bossy elder, mainly driven by greed, is actually softhearted (however hard she tries to show otherwise), and it is endearing to see her gradually transition from a potentially villainous character to a true ally.  (This is a common trait of most Miyazaki films.)  She provides for the funniest moments in the picture, as do her boys, the brash but shy Louie, burly Charles (Shalulu), and freckle-faced Henri.  One particularly hilarious scene involves a street brawl between the pirate boys and Pazu’s boss, in which both men compare their muscles before rushing into a punching match (this can be seen as a somewhat “cartoonish” moment in the film, but not at all to its detriment).  In another, all three become fascinated with the sweet-natured Sheeta, requesting her to bake desserts and even resorting to helping her out in the gully… or rather, competing to do so.  Muska also deserves mention, mainly because he serves as the major antagonist of the film.  Most Miyazaki features are often devoid of a villain with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and that’s what makes Muska stand out—he is obsessed with power and is simply evil personified.  He’s manipulative, smooth, sly, and dangerously treacherous—when Muska unveils his true colors, he becomes totally psychopathic and ruthless.  Like Dola, he commands every scene he’s in with a deliciously villainous aura and is all the more memorable for it.  Even the supporting characters, from the kindly Uncle Pom, to the army soldiers (including their easily exasperated but not very intelligent General), Pazu’s boss, and even the high-pitched little girl who chases a pig out of a house are all memorably defined.  In fact, the supporting cast is so strong that the lead characters, Pazu and Sheeta, may seem like the least interesting characters in comparison.  They’re likeable, skillful, and loyal, and develop a very nice relationship.  But that’s really all they really are.  That said, it really is not a deal-breaker—and other than that, both are very much worth rooting for.  (It is also to Miyazaki’s credit that, even though Sheeta does have to be rescued, she still manages to show some backbone.)

Viewers spoiled by the more lavish, flashy backgrounds found in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away may find the visuals in Castle in the Sky somewhat dated, as the film was, after all, animated more than twenty five years ago.  As such, there are some places in which the animation comes across as a bit limited.  Frankly, however, compared to many other films produced in this era, the actual artwork is phenomenal, the character designs are classic Miyazaki, and every frame is lovingly crafted with skill, detail, and wonder.  The animation is all the more spectacular during the action set pieces of the film, which are every bit as exciting and thrilling as a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg blockbuster… perhaps even more so.

The major attraction to Castle in the Sky, however, is in its musical score, as provided by Joe Hisaishi.  The main theme for the title structure is haunting and melancholy, and the rest of the pieces have a distinctively beautiful style that the composer has become synonymous for.  Every note of this score enhances the images onscreen and inject the overall tale with a quality that goes above and beyond its requirements.  Interestingly, the score has also become a major source of debate for many fans of the film.  The original Japanese version has a rather sparse approach to its music, totally contributing to about 45 minutes of the overall film.  It’s also obvious that the score was produced electronically, as there are certain cues that come across as somewhat dated in their gratingly synthy nature.  In the Disney-produced English version, Joe Hisaishi was commissioned to extend and rework his score for a full performance with a symphony orchestra.  A lot of purists have detested this new score vehemently, declaring that it only succeeds in destroying the film, yet anyone unfamiliar with the original score won’t even notice.  But it ultimately doesn’t matter whether this new score was composed to appeal to audiences uncomfortable with lengthy periods of silence (as one executive declared), or if it was a case of Hisaishi trying to improve his work.  What really counts, is that the new score is simply phenomenal; the tunes are every bit as vibrant, and the crisply recorded quality of the orchestra lends a very fresh, epic tone to Castle in the Sky.  There are many scenes in the film which are arguably much more powerful with the new score, particularly an initially acapella choir piece at the end of the picture (which is abruptly cut short); in this new version the orchestra gradually crescendos as the piece reaches its climax.  It’s the sort of music that would make John Williams blush.

Longtime Anime buffs may notice that this film bares a strange resemblance to Gainax’s Nadia:  The Secret of Blue Water, in which the characters and storyline share a similar formula.  As charming as that series is, though, it suffered from taking a complete 180 degree turn at its midway point, turning into something unbearable and mind-numbing.  (In all fairness, though, the show does end with a bang.)  Castle in the Sky, meanwhile, remains more consistent in its flow and never once derails into campy nonsense (as mentioned, there are some cartoonish parts to this tale, but not exaggeratedly so), and it’s arguably all the better because of it.

All in all, Castle in the Sky is a mesmerizing, thrilling, funny, and ultimately delightful film that could very well be considered Miyazaki’s most accessible film.  Even if the plot is predictable, it is told with skill and manages to keep one intrigued.  Its characters are endearing, it looks great, even after all these years, and it is simply a lot of fun.  Be sure to put this film on your “must-see” list if you’re going to discover Miyazaki—it’s one of his best films ever, and I highly recommend it.

(There are two different English versions of Castle in the Sky; aside from Disney’s version, which was recorded in 1998 but delayed until 2003, there was an earlier dub distributed by Streamline.  There are a number of purists who have been harshly overcritical of the Disney version, with some firmly stating that this previous version is superior—mostly for not having the new music and having its leads sound less mature than the new version.  Personally, however, I think the Disney dub is fantastic, and easily surpasses the ‘80’s dub, which I found to be just plain bad and totally devoid of any life.  Although naturally, with a cast that involves Mark Hamill and Cloris Leachman, you can’t go wrong.  Read all about it in my article for The Dub Reviewer

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Author: Jon Turner

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  • Miguel Douglas

    Another great review Jon. I personally felt that this was one of Miyazaki’s most whimsical affairs, and certainly one of his most accessible (like you stated). I usually recommend this film, Totoro, and Kiki to younger viewers in the family, but like many other Ghibli films, they can be enjoyed by all age groups.

  • Jon Turner

    It’s so hard for me to decide which Miyazaki is my favorite, but this is definitely up there. I also love [i]Totoro[/i], [i]Kiki[/i], [i]Mononoke[/i], and [i]Whisper of the Heart[/i]–those are my top five. There’s just so much to enjoy in this film that it’s really easy to forget you’re watching an animated film. I WILL confess that the first time I saw it WAS in Japanese, but that was a long time ago, back while I was still waiting for its official release (1999, to be exact!). I liked it then, but since I have the DVD release, I’ve always listened to the dub track and I’ve never looked back. Although there ARE some parts of the original that I do like as well–I never would’ve known that the book in Pazu’s house was originally “Gulliver’s Travels” in the original–although if Pazu said it’s his father’s journal in the dub, wouldn’t THAT make his father Jonathan Swift? It’s an amusing “what if” that I find myself wondering.

    Wasn’t there going to be a feature on Ghibli’s works on isuGoi? If so, I feel a little guilty for already claiming a review that someone such as, say, ngamer3k might do, since he, like me, appreciates these films and the dubs–I just felt that this film deserved a shout-out on isugoi, as it is definitely one of my favorites of all time.

  • Miguel Douglas

    There was going to be a feature on Ghibli’s work, but I certainly don’t mind having you contribute to the project as well!

  • Stewart J.

    Fantastic review! This is probably my favorite Ghibli of all time and you did a wonderful job with the review. I absolutely love the scenery in the film and I have actually used some scenes as wallpaper for my computer!

  • Jon Turner

    Thanks a lot for the compliment. I love everything about this movie myself, from the backdrops to the music to the voice acting (in both languages), to the storyline… I swear, I can never get enough of “Castle in the Sky”.

    “All good pirates listen to their mom!”
    -Charles, one of the pirates

  • Charles

    Definitely a great film. I have to admit, it took me a while to warm up to it. At first, to me it was the black sheep in my collection of Miyazaki DVDs. But each time I watch it, I grow to enjoy and appreciate it more. It’s a beautiful film!

  • Jon Turner

    It is indeed a breathtaking movie, but it’s also a lot of fun—the sense of adventure and the humor is a nice touch, and when you’ve got Luke as a baddie it’s even more awesome.