Hayao Miyazaki goes higher into the skies in this exciting fantasy adventure.
Who made it?: Hayao Miyazaki (Director/Writer), Isao Takahata (Producer), Nibariki/Studio Ghibli/Tokuma Shoten.
Who’s in it?: 2003 Disney voice cast: Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill, Jim Cummings, Mandy Patinkin.
IMDB rating: 8.1/10 (Top 250 #230).
After Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind became a success in Japan, the renowned animation studio was eventually established. The very first film produced under the name of Studio Ghibli, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is just a fun, romantic, and emotional experience. Miyazaki once again utilises his signature style and takes us into another fantastical world, with inspiration from adventure classics like Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island.
Long ago, human civilization built flying cities in the sky until they were destroyed by an unknown disaster, forcing the inhabitants to live on the ground, with Laputa the only remaining city left. In the present, a girl named Sheeta is held captive by a shady government official called Muska in a military airship. The flying craft is eventually attacked by sky pirates led by an old but spry woman named Dola, giving Sheeta a chance to escap… but she ends up falling off! As she plunges down to the ground, a stone amulet around her neck begins to glow and she slowly descends into a mining town, where she is rescued by a boy named Pazu, whom she strikes a very close friendship with. They eventually uncover Sheeta’s heritage and what the amulet is – compass to Laputa – and are thrown into a quest to find the flying city whilst making an alliance with the sky pirates and racing against the army…
With a plot that involves uncovering a myth that grants immeasurable power and the bad guys being part of a dictatorship, it’s hard not to notice its similarities to a certain adventure franchise starring a fedora-wearing archaeologist. Unlike Valley, the film opts for a more traditional story with little to no traces of the latter’s environmental themes. Following a relatively straightforward narrative, it has a young and optimistic hero, a damsel in distress, and a power-hungry villain. It’s as typical as it gets but Miyazaki manages to make it interesting because it has genuinely good characters, and he puts in a few nifty changes with such a common set-up, even if there are instances when the plot pushes the tropes a tad too much. Running at two hours, the tight screenplay and firm pacing results in having no wasted moments or any unnecessary subplots, and the amount of characters is just right for how simple the narrative is. From start to finish, its an adventure film in its purest form, and an immensely enjoyable one at that.
What drives the majority of the picture is the romance between Pazu and Sheeta. Instead of being portrayed like the usual love story, it’s more of a bond between two kids who mutually understand each other. They have wonderful chemistry and it’s very easy to get behind their struggle. Even if Sheeta is shown as a damsel that needs to be saved, what makes her interesting is that she chooses to get captured to protect the one she cares about. Pazu is a very identifiable hero because he’s not a perfect one, going along with the fact that he’s just a kid. Muska is the smug, arrogant, and power-craving villain that we’ve seen a million times but he has a slight air of confidence and charisma that elevates him from being boring. While Pazu and Sheeta are the heart of the story, the best scenes are the ones involving the sky pirates. Dola is an ass-kicking grandmother who you wish you were related to, and the rest of the crew are all distinct and have different personalities, resulting in various top-notch comedic moments.
The animation is a slight improvement over Nausicaä, with smoother lines and a less grainy colour pallet. Once again, Miyazaki shows off his love for planes, resulting in beautiful landscape shots and amazing flying sequences. Joe Hisaishi returns as the composer, offering a beautifully-arranged orchestral soundtrack that adds to the film’s sense of adventure. An interesting production note is that the changes between the Disney English dub and the original Japanese gives the film many different perspectives. The English dub portrays Pazu and Sheeta like they’re in their teens, which gives their interactions a more romantic feel, while in their Japanese counterparts, they sound more like kids. The Japanese edition is much more preferable because the majority of the English voices just don’t suit the character designs, with the exception of Mark Hamill’s brilliant performance as Muska.
If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned adventure filled with interesting protagonists, exhilarating sequences, and a sense of wonder and fun, then this is a must-watch. With such a simple and traditional set-up, it delivers the right amount of story and personalities into the mix, and its steady pacing makes its two hour run-time feel like a breeze. Another fantastic effort from Studio Ghibli and there are a lot more greats to come…
Here’s the awesome score. Surely one of the best in all of anime.
- Laputa the flying island was a setting in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. Hayao Miyazaki says in interviews that he was unaware that “la puta” means “the whore” in Spanish. If he had been aware of the translation, he would not have used it as a title.
- The correct romanisation of Sheeta’s name would have been “Shita”, but the producers of the Disney English dub changed the spelling for obvious reasons.
- Dubbed in 1999, Laputa: Castle in the Sky did not receive a home video release until four years later when Spirited Away (2001) won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. During that time, it would be shown at the occasional film festival, and sell out with little word-of-mouth. Despite its limited success, Disney’s official explanation for the delay was that Studio Ghibli wanted to avoid reverse-importation of the film in Japan and lose R2 sales. However, by 2003, Laputa had long made its money back in DVD sales in Japan, fueling fire to the long-held fan speculation that the company purchased the Ghibli library for the purpose of sabotaging its potential success in the U.S.
- On August 3, 2013, a Japanese showing of Castle in the Sky led to a new Twitter record with 143,199 tweets per second.