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Castle in the Sky

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. 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 (based, incidentally, on real-life Welsh mining villages) 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. These particular robots (who incidentally bare no resemblance to Transformers, or any other Anime with shape-shifting "mecha" such as "Evangelion" or "Escaflowne") 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.) Impeccably voiced by Cloris Leachman in the Disney dub, she provides for the funniest moments in the picture, as do her boys, the brash but shy Louie (Mandy "Inigo Montoya" Pantinkin), burly Shalulu (Mike "Friar Tuck" McShane), and freckle-faced Henri (Andy Dick). 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 gally... or rather, competing to do so. Some viewers have found this latter scene somewhat creepy, but honestly, it's handled mostly for laughs. (Videogame fans should also notice that a character on Dola's ship bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Eggman/Robotnik. This is because the creator of Sonic The Hedgehog was inspired by this film.)

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. In what may be a clever casting choice, his voice is supplied by Mark Hamill, who has had quite a career in voice acting after Star Wars. It helps, too, that the character is a dead ringer for the former Jedi Knight. Even the supporting players, 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 (as played by James van der Beek and Anna Paquin, respectively), 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 thirty years ago. As such, there are some places in which the animation comes across as a bit jerky. Frankly, however, compared to many other films produced in this era, Castle in the Sky looks 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.

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.

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-commissioned English version, Joe Hisaishi was commissioned to extend and rework his score for a full performance with a symphony orchestra. Purists absolutely excoriated the new score, declaring it to be "a crime against all humanity." Miyazaki, however, didn't share the same sentiments. As a matter of fact, he approved of the end result. It's easy to see why; with its deeply rich orchestrations and crisply rendered sound quality, the new work expands and in many ways improves on the (still beautiful) original, 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. Not that the original Japanese version isn't effective; but hearing this new score really showcases Hisaishi's progression as a musician, and honestly, as much as I prefer the newer work, either score fits the movie just fine.

Touching on Disney's English version (produced in 1998 but delayed until 2003), it is admittingly a much more boisterous interpretation as opposed to the more subdued native language track, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, the dub excels in many areas, and at times, rivals the original. As mentioned, Hamill and Leachman play their roles perfectly and arguably the biggest hitters in the whole show -- both are arguably among the best performances of any Ghibli dubs. Patinkin, McShane, and Dick all sound like they're having a great time with their parts, while Jim Cummings as the General, Richard Dysart as the kindly Uncle Pom, and the ubiquitous Tress MacNeille in a memorable cameo as the wife of Pazu's boss all turn in fine performances.

As with Kiki's Delivery Service, scriptwriters John Semper and Jack Fletcher remain fairly faithful to the original, rewriting the dialogue only for natural and/or lipflap moments (with one major exception toward the end). There are places, though, where they do seize opportunities to include some extra lines of incidental dialogue. Sometimes this approach works well: the pirates, for instance, are much more fleshed out with the banter supplied to them, and there's a very amusing moment where Sheeta tries to talk like a pirate to a disgruntled Dola. Both of these are harmless little bits which expand on the character interaction of the film. That said, there are some places where Semper and Fletcher do go overboard, such as Pazu and Sheeta commenting on things the audience can clearly see when they explore Laputa in the latter half of the film. None of which are deal breakers by any means, but they seem a bit like much. However, I do have at least one major criticism about the adaptation, and that may be the alteration of the last part of Sheeta's speech to Muska toward the end of the film. I personally think it would have worked much better if Disney had left it as "you can't survive from Mother Earth", as the replacement "the world cannot live without love" feels out of place. As mentioned, though, the core storyline remains the same, and I don't think it's necessary for the script to be word-for-word with more sparse subtitles in order to get the point across.

Some fans have also taken issue with the voicing of Van der Beek and Paquin as Pazu and Sheeta, as sound more like teenagers as opposed to their more higher-pitched counterparts in the Japanese version. Personally, I was never bothered by either of them. James may not be the best casting choice to play Pazu, but while it is a bit jarring to hear his distinctively mature voice coming out of a character who is drawn somewhat younger, he nonetheless makes up for it by providing enough warmth, charm, and exuberance. (He's also not as shrieky as his Japanese counterpart, either, so at least that's a plus.) Anna does have the occasional stiff moment, but otherwise she's fine as Sheeta; the low-key delivery is fairly fitting for her role, and she does put emotion into her part when it is required. The somewhat mixed-up New Zealand/Canadian accent she speaks with actually works in favor of her character, too, even though its shifts from dialect to dialect can be odd at times. In short, Disney's dub may be too jarring for those who grew up on the original version, but despite its faults, it remains a worthwhile listen in its own right, and one that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

For the record, I also liked the Japanese version, but I don't consider it better or worse than Disney's, only different. In short, both are great entertainments, but getting the most out of one or the other may depend on what you bring with you to it. And both are miles better than the hideous '80s dub made for Japan Air Lines, which, in all fairness, is more "accurate", but is absolutely bottom-barrel in every way imaginable, featuring some of the very worst voice acting I've ever heard. Though the leads sound younger in this older dub, neither of their actresses turn in anything of the way of an inspired performance and are actually more lifeless compared even to James and Anna. Even the rest of the cast, despite being made up of Streamline regulars misfire, sounding totally detached from their roles and, in cases like Muska, distractingly robotic and stilted. He speeds through his lines with zero emotion or menace and only evokes chuckles instead of fear. (Even with the argument that Jeff Winkless was trying to copy the Japanese voice actor, his turn still doesn't work.) Dola's voice actress is also insufferably shrieky and not at all pleasant to listen to, overacting madly and with no charm. Leachman is a far better Dola in my opinion; the same is true with Hamill as Muska. The voice direction is probably to blame for these turns in the older dub; Disney's dub had an experienced team and accomplished ADR director, Jack Fletcher, at the helm, while this version was obviously rushed. The dialogue is choppy and poorly written as well, with lots of cringeworthy lines such as "I'm as hard as a brick moppet!", "We can go all the way!", and "Now say bye-bye!" Such lines only succeed in adding unintentional humor, which is something that Disney's script, for all its liberalness, never does. It really is no wonder Streamline Pictures' Carl Macek, who picked up the dub for a brief theatrical release in the 1980s', wasn't particularly thrilled with how it turned out. (In fact, he wanted to prove he could do better, and he did with My Neighbor Totoro.) In short, it's not worth the trouble of importing the 2002 Japanese DVD just to hear this older dub unless you're a diehard fan who happened to hear it long ago.

There's an interesting history regarding the different releases of this classic. Aside from its original Japanese release in 1986, the film took seventeen years to be released to DVD in America. Inbetween, Streamline Pictures, as mentioned, temporarily picked up the JAL dub for a brief theatrical screening in 1987-1988 before pulling it from memory. That version never saw a proper video release except on a Japanese laserdisc and a now out-of-print 2002 Japanese DVD release. The Disney version most casual fans may be familiar with (to those who aren't super-fans of the original Japanese who won't so much as go near the newer edition without so much as shredding it for whatever reason; much less the few who saw the JAL dub) was planned to follow Kiki's Delivery Service's home video release in 1999, but various factors pushed it back. It finally debuted on April 15, 2003. It wasn't a perfect release by any means; the literal subtitle track was noticeably mistimed for fans of the Japanese version and the video quality suffered from an overuse of edge-enhancement. Whatever purists said about the Disney dub, it still carved out a niche, finding new fans.

Seven years later, however, Disney reissued the film on DVD, with noticeable alterations to the dub track; the extra lines were all but dialed out, and so was the rerecorded score. In its place was the original synthesized score by Joe Hisaishi. Perhaps it was of purist backlash (Kiki's Delivery Service's dub was altered for similar reasons), but fans of the Disney dub were disappointed by the alterations -- to them, the newer dub offered a fresh, quirky experience that its pared down version couldn't replicate. More distracting were instances when certain lines were cut, resulting in moments when characters' mouths are gaping with no sound. It's particularly noticeable during one instance when Pazu is being tickled by his pigeons and yet he's not making any sound. Regrettably, some of the better added-in lines suffer from being pared down, too, with memorable bits like "We'll all find her, and call me Captain!" and "You little brat! Goodbye! Enjoy the ride!" being chopped in half. Yes, there were some lines that were probably a bit of a nuisance to some viewers, but the cuts were done clumsily. Perhaps more disappointing was the use of dubtitles for the Japanese language track. As the dub had been written primarily to synchronize with the English mouth movements and was noticeably chattier, it was distracting to the fans who would rather watch the film in its language track. On the flipside, the rerelease offered more extras than the first Disney DVD -- which only had a pointlessly gushy, pandering intro from John Lasseter, a behind-the-microphone featurette, Japanese trailers, and storyboards. In the 2010 edition, those same extras were ported over along with newly videotaped interviews from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki.

Two years later, when Disney issued the film on BluRay, the same contents from the 2010 DVD edition were ported over. The picture quality on the Disney BluRay was fantastic and arguably better than the previous DVD releases. It helps that the film was remastered from the original 35mm negatives. But for fans who had grown up on the Disney dub as it was issued in 2003 and fans of the Japanese language track, having the altered dub track and the dubtitles was a deal-breaker. Ironically, the Japanese BluRay made a surprise modification to the Disney dub -- although the extra lines and additional sound effects were still dialed out, the rescore was miraculously restored! For fans who prefer the new score but found the added in lines a bit overbearing, this was arguably the best of both worlds, but it would be an expensive venture to embark on given how much the Japanese BD costs.

Recently, however, GKIDS has picked up the Ghibli library from Disney and has reissued the film yet again on BD and DVD. For the most part, it's corrected many of the problems with the previous releases. The video quality retains the spectacular quality found in the Disney BD, albeit with the highest bitrate count. It's the other areas that get a bit of a work out. For fans of the Japanese version, there are properly synched AND literal subtitles. (The SDH subtitles which correspond to the dub track are on another one.) Perhaps more intriguingly, for fans of the Disney dub, there are TWO different mixes provided -- a DTS-HD 5.1 mix featuring the new score, AND a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix featuring the original score. This is a "best of both worlds" situation for both sides. Although some fans of the Disney dub may be irked by the missing moments of dialogue, the option to have either score to choose from might arguably be for the best. Also to be included are the Disney extras from the previous editions (minus the John Lasseter intro), as well as a fourteen minute "promotional" video from 1986 covering the making of the movie, in which we see a young Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli making the film. This extra has been exclusive to Japan for many years, and while the subtitles are crudely translated, it's still amazing to have this featurette domestically available for the first time.

Ideally, it would also be best to have the unaltered Disney dub and maybe the JAL dub for those who insist on hearing it (or for unintentional humor), but as it is, this will have to do for now.

Regardless of any edition or however you choose to view it, Castle in the Sky remains 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 fantastic, even after all these years, and is simply great 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.