Friday, February 19, 2016

Castle in the Sky (1986)


Two years after his massive post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure Nausicaaof the Valley of the Wind , director Hayao Miyazaki brought a different kind of adventure to the big screen. This turned out to be a unique film in many ways. It looks into Miyazaki’s past work and also gives us a glimpse of the future. In so many ways Castle in the Sky plays like a greatest hits of Miyazaki’s work, before he had even completed enough work to create a greatest hits. But a greatest hits film from one of the masters of animation means we have a pretty good movie to look at.


In a world very similar to ours during the industrial revolution a young man named Pazu (James Van Der Beek) is toiling away as an engineer’s apprentice. His job is to keep the mining machines in good order.  But his ordinary day is interrupted so he can catch a glowing girl who falls from the sky! Her name is Sheeta (Anna Paquin). She tells Pazu that she is being pursued by dangerous sky pirates lead by the notorious Dola (Cloris Leachman) and a sinister government agent Muska (Mark Hamill).

Pazu decides to help Sheeta evade both parties, and the two find themselves falling in an out of peril. They’ll delve into the depths of the mysterious mines, fly in soaring airships, do battle with pirates and even encounter a bizarre robot. This mechanical being is supposedly from the famed floating city of Laputa. And Sheeta may be the only person alive who is able to unlock the mystery of this legendary land. But is the secret of The Castle in the Sky a blessing or a curse?

Good Points:
  • An amazing world visualized in both production design and sweeping action
  • A powerful symphonic score by Joe Hisaishi
  • Maintains a fun action packed adventure feel through the whole film

Bad Points:
  • Can go from dramatic to incredibly goofy at the drop of a hat
  • The original score may contain too many 80s synths for some viewers
  • Tries to do too many things and ends up losing some of its impact


After the dark mythic saga of Nausicaa, Miyazaki went for something more fun and light. He creates a memorable steampunk world before steampunk was even a thing. Pazu and Sheeta are delightful characters you immediately care about. Their adventures and perils are entertaining and well realized. But the movie seems to shift from pure adventure to slapstick comedy a few too many times. There are so many elements in play that no one part ends up really sticking. As a result, I always enjoy watching the film, but it is one that I tend to forget about when I want to revisit a Miyazaki film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Gulliver never had an adventure like this.
This is a strange movie for me. I know it has a lot of fans and some folks consider it one of the best in Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s filmography (something that can be said of nearly every movie in that filmography). Castle in the Sky is a movie that is filled with great ideas and is a lot of fun to watch, but lacks sticking power. As you can see from my ratings there is nothing particularly wrong with it. If this movie was presented by another studio it may be considered a classic. But when placed in the same group as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro it ends up falling into the shadows.

I think I know why that might be, but before I delve into that, let’s take a look at the film in all its parts.

The little red engine that could.
Like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind before it, Castle in the Sky is a marvel of design and visual splendor. Miyazaki takes us to a world in the middle of their industrial revolution and pushes the concepts to some interesting places. The mining town Pazu lives in is inspired by coalmines in Wales. In fact much of costume design and settings in this film are based on a very European look. Miyazaki started this with Castle of Cagliostro and could continue using this visual approach up to Howl’s Moving Castle. The mining town is built in and around deep crags in the earth. There are plenty of steam-powered machines around, including a plucky little train that is used in one of the many chase scenes of the film.

The first portion of the film keeps us on the ground and then deep inside of the earth as Pazu and Sheeta escape into an abandoned mine. This underworld scene is filled unique visuals, including glowing rocks and enormous caverns. It reminds me of the world under the toxic forest in Nausicaa.

Dola's pirate ship has a beak!
But Castle in the Sky really takes off when we hit the skies. Muska and his government forces use enormous war dirigibles that wouldn’t be out of place in Nausicaa either. The sky pirates, commanded by the grouchy Dola, have unique insect and bird inspired vehicles they operate. Then you have the enormous and visually stunning flying island of Laputa itself.

While the name of the flying island comes from Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the design doesn’t look like it came from the age of reason. The technology we see at work in Laputa contrasts to the steam and gear powered machines used in the rest of the film. Laputa is a world powered by nature and by some kind of unique energy source found in the mysterious stones that Sheeta can activate. Is this some kind of biological connection to the earth that the people of Laputa were able to wield? It is never explained. Visually it makes for such a difference: clean and vibrant compared to the coal and smoke we see earlier.

The airship Goliath searches for trouble.
Once again Miyazaki’s fascination with flight is on full display. He uses many of the visual styles and techniques for the thrilling dogfights in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and expands on them. Castle in the Sky is filled to bursting with intense aerial action. All of it looks great and is so impressive for hand drawn animation from 1986.

Equally impressive are the chase scenes in the first portion of the film. Many of these remind me strongly of his fun car chase scene that opens Castleof Cagliostro. There is a mix of intense speed, cartoon physics and surprising maneuvers that keep everything light and frothy, but also keep the momentum moving.

Sheets and Pazu take a quick break from the various
That is one of the keys to Castle in the Sky. The movie moves at a brisk pace, jumping from one adventure and set piece to the next. There are few moments where things slow down, such as when Sheeta is captured by Muska, or when Pazu and Sheeta explore Laputa for the first time. Miyazaki is known for a leisurely pace in most of his films. With this movie falling into the action adventure category he makes sure something exciting is always happening or about to happen.

When it comes to sound effects, this film does a solid job. Most of what you hear is real world sound. It helps ground the viewer and gives weight to the film. In fact many of the machines in the movie feel more realistic because of the sound design for them. The only place where we get unusual sound is for Laputa and its unique technology.

The wonders of the underground cavern are revealed.
In 1986 Studio Ghibil wasn’t yet the powerhouse of animation that it would become after the release of My Neighbor Totoro. As such they didn’t have the budget for a full symphonic score. Miyazaki turned to his collaborator for Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Joe Hisaishi to bring Castle in the Sky to life. But with a tight budget he had to rely heavily on synths. In most cases this wouldn’t be a problem, but with a film so rooted visually in late 1800s it feels natural to have something a bit more orchestral.

Is the robot an enemy or a protector?
In a way it doesn’t really matter. Hisaishi crafted some wonderful music for Castle in the Sky. His main theme for the film is one of his most beautiful pieces, and he uses it throughout the film, adding a feeling of wonder to many key scenes. The postcredit scene would not be as impactful without this theme and this performance. When Disney obtained the rights to release Castle in the Sky with a new dub, they brought in Hisaishi to rework the score with a full orchestra and add an additional 50 minutes of music. They wanted to give this film a theatrical release after they released Princess Mononke in theaters in 1997. They felt a symphonic score would add to the grandeur of the film.  I have to say in many ways they were right. For the most part the new score backs the action really well. There are a few moments where the score seems to be a bit too much. But Hisashi is a lot like James Horner, he always goes for the emotion, and he usually goes big. On DVD you can hear the original synth score if you watch with the Japanese dub, and hear the symphonic if you watch the English Dub.

Muska's greed endangers everyone on Laputa.
Speaking of the dub, well it is a bit controversial. As I mentioned the movie moves pretty quickly and you may find it difficult to keep up with the subtitles. But if you pick the English dub you’ll notice right away that Pazu and Sheeta sound a bit older than the characters look. Disney opted to have them dubbed as pre-teens, and in Japanese they are obviously children. In addition, the English dub has a lot of the background characters providing a lot of additional chatter (especially during the sky pirate scenes). Some of it is pretty amusing, but the result is a noisy dub (something that Kiki’s Delivery Service also suffers from). Disney eventually stopped trying to overcook the English dubs. Honestly I’m not sure this a deal breaker to anyone but anime fans. It is a solid dub, and Mark Hamill provides an excellent performance as the dastardly Muska. Plus you get the gorgeous symphonic score with the English dub.

That said, a well informed reader, Jon, informed me that Disney made some changes to later releases of Castle in the Sky on DVD. The first DVD release (from 2004) contains both the original Japanese and English dub as it was first released (with the symphonic score). The 2010 Region 1 release drops the symphonic score and cuts a lot of the added chatter to bring the dub script closer to the Japanese. But other regions retain the symphonic score but contain the de-chattered dub. The Disney Blu-ray is also missing the symphonic score. So if you want to see the film with that version of the score, you might want to seek out the 2004 DVD release.

Sheets and Pazu discover another puzzle on the
castle in the sky.
Castle in the Sky was the first official film from Studio Ghibli. As such Miyazaki needed this to be a success so he could continue his path to creating a major animation studio. His approach was to craft an adventure film the whole family could enjoy. Nausicaa was a visually impressive film with overtones of darkness and a heavy mythological and ecological message. Miyazaki wanted to keep things more fun and light, but still include an ecological theme to the movie (something that appears in nearly all of his movies in some form). In addition, he also wanted to comment on human desire to advance technology no matter the cost.

The final result is a script that has a great adventure at its heart, and one that carries the film forward with great skill. But it has too many underlying themes that end up fighting for attention and a place in the final product. This makes the movie vary in tone. One minute we are goofing around with sky pirates and cracking silly jokes. The next we are talking about civilization destroying weapons and subjugating nature.

The power Sheeta channels is what Muska wants
Muska is a real nasty character, one that will threaten innocent people and children to get what he wants. Castle of Cagliostro had a similar issue, but I think it worked better because the main characters were all rogues and most of them were adults. The danger and the cartoon humor was odd, but it didn’t’ seem wrong. But when you put children in real danger all the cartoon slapstick feels out of place to me. This kind of wild tone shift would be toned down in future films. But I think that Castle in the Sky could have used a tighter script. As amazing as the visuals are, they end up being the part of the film I always remember most, and story just kind of slips away.

Is destruction the only solution to the power within
What struck me during this viewing was how much of this film would create seeds that would spring up into full bloom in later Miyazaki films. The theme of humankind’s use and abuse of nature would be a key focus of Princess Mononoke. The amazing airship battles and rollicking fisticuffs would return in Porco Russo. Sheeta looks like a prototype for Kiki of Kiki’s Deliver Service. Elements of Laputa and the airships would appear in Howl’s Moving Castle. The giant tree in Laputa could be related to the giant tree in My Neighbor Totoro. Dola looks like she could related to Yubaba from Spirited Away. The crazy train chase could be a prototype for the crazy drive up the island in Ponyo. I already pointed out how many elements of the film seem to drift over from Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate grab bag of Miyazaki visual style.

Sheets and Pazu escape by skydiving! Is Coleman
Francis directing this scene?
Maybe it is because he put so many interesting ideas into one movie that Castle in the Sky feels fun but never really gels together. Going forward I feel Miyazaki would channel his creativity into a much narrower focus. He’d craft a solid story, with only a couple of underlining themes. He’d ensure that the visuals support the story instead of crafting set pieces to build a story around (which is what this feels like sometimes). The result of this focus would come in his next film, the one that turned Studio Ghibli into one of the most popular animation studios in Japan and the one that really made Miyazaki a household name in Japan: My Neighbor Totoro.

Pazu may just be a kid, but he is a hell of a

Pazu offers his help to young Kiki... I mean Sheeta.

Dola and her goofy pirates prepare for revenge!

Muska tries to use gifts and courteous words to get
Sheets to help him find and claim Laputa.

But his intentions are far from pure. He is after power
and this robot hints at plenty.

Sheets is always ready to roll up her sleeves and get
to work.

Sheets and Pazu discuss the possibilities that
Laputa offers.

There is a very good reason this doorway looks like
a coffin.
Pazu and Sheeta fly off into a new adventure!
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  1. I've always loved Disney's dub. I do think they went a bit overboard in some of the extra dialogue moments, but overall it's an excellent dub, and honestly, I can't go back to the Japanese version anymore because the voice performers overall do a great job, and yeah, Hamill and Leachman REALLY knock it out of the park. Their performances as well as those of the entire cast more than made up for the sometimes excessive lines. And yes, the new score REALLY provides a lot of color to the movie.

    Incidentally, the 2010 DVD release omits the rescore and dials back on a lot of the additional chatter because purists were FURIOUS at the changes. But here's another oddity: the Japanese, UK, and Australian BluRays all retain the orchestral rescore on the dub track, but the added in dialogue lines are still gone. The Disney BD does not have the rescore at all. Something I think you might wanna mention here.

    Otherwise great review.

    1. Nice to see another fan of the dub on here. For me the wonderful Hisaishi score is what makes the English dub worth hearing. That music is great.

      Oddly enough the one that didn't quick click with me was the Disney dub of Nausicaa. Something about that just didn't work, and I'm sure if my memories of "Warriors of the Wind" have something to do with it. I usually watch that one in Japanese.

      And thanks for the additional details on the recent releases. I have the old DVD (obviously) and didn't know they had made so many changes to the dub release. I'll add it to my review.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I haven’t seen this, but it looks like pleasant fun. The appeal of steampunk – which well precedes the invention of the term – is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Something about Victorian style and outlook still strikes a chord in fiction, fashion, and song – e.g. the rock group Steam Powered Giraffe,

    1. Ok, just the fact that they are called Steam Powered Giraffe has to win some kind of awesomeness award! I do wonder if this whole concept came from Jules Verne or another writer of that era. Most steam punk seems to be channelling Verne in some way or the other.

  3. Yes, I'll have to give this a look. Anime fans are some of the most fickle fans in fandom. I can see why Disney wanted to bring these to American audiences as they remind me of some of Disney's earlier live action films like In Search of The Castaways, The Moon Spinners, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and so on. There's also some Verne or Wells in the shaping of some of Miyazaki's stories too. I'd probably like the Disney version better because sometimes I feel the Japanese (and some of the English dubs) used too young of voice actors.

    As far as the uneven tone of the film it sounds like he was striving for something that Pixar does well these days: have something for both adults and children to enjoy, but didn't quite achieve it.

    1. Yeah I think this was a solid second feature for Disney to bring over. "Princess Mononoke" was really dark and had some disturbing moments. Not at all what Miyazaki had been releasing previous to that film. "Castle in the Sky" was a better fit for them.

      Yeah, I might be in the minority when it comes to those wild shifts in tone. You see that quite a bit in anime in general, so Japanese audiences don't have a problem with it. And some of this kind of thing will show up again in "Porco Rosso". But both "Totoro" and "Kiki" have plenty of humor but it seems less slapstick and more organic to the story.

      Certainly check this one out if you get the chance. Visually it is a treat, but it also is just a fun movie all the way around.