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Anime Reviews: Castle in the Sky

Updated on May 16, 2015

With its ambitious storyline, memorable characters, and visual perfection, Castle in the Sky sets the gold standard as Studio Ghibli's first official film.

Title: Castle in the Sky a.k.a. Laputa: Castle in the Sky a.k.a. Tenkuu no Shiro Laputa
Genre: Action/Drama
Production: Studio Ghibli
Film Length: 126 minutes
Air Dates: 8/2/1986
Age Rating: 3+ (mild violence)

Summary: In times long past, humanity held knowledge to craft incredible technological wonders until their hubris caused the destruction of this civilization. After so many years, the only remnant of these ancient marvels is Laputa, the legendary castle in the sky--the very same castle Pazu's father claimed to have found. While he was labeled a liar and a fraud, Pazu swears to clear his father's name and discover the castle for himself; that is, until he unexpectedly comes across a girl falling from the sky, her descent slowed by her mysterious glowing pendant. The girl, Sheeta, had been held prisoner aboard an airship before it was attacked by air pirates, with both the pirates and her captors fixated on her pendant. Could there be a connection between Sheeta's magical pendant and the legendary floating castle?

The Good: Damn near everything
The Bad: Overly-simplistic antagonist
The Ugly: This film's title is extremely unfortunate if you speak Spanish...

Guess what, it's Hayao Miyazaki, and it's from his pre-Spirited Away days, therefore it's going to be guaranteed legendary. That really just about sums it up. Just as a little bit of background, while Miyazaki and many of his fellow Ghibli members have made several movies before this point (Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind chiefly), they had been working under different companies (Tokyo Movie Shinsha and Topcraft respectively). Shortly after Nausicaa, Miyazaki and the boys decided to create their own animation studio, and thus Studio Ghibli was formed. Not long after, Castle in the Sky was released, and it was amaaaaaazing~

First of all, I really shouldn't have to go into too much detail, but the art and animation present in this film are incredible. Appealing character designs, bright colors, wonderfully nuanced character movements are par for the course with Studio Ghibli, and Castle in the Sky is no exception. In particular, one of the greatest things Miyazaki does is create consistent aesthetic styles within each movie's universe, especially when it comes to technology.

Just about every piece of technology in this film, from the flying airships to the ancient constructs to the floating castle itself, seems to be modeled in the style of 1950s Hollywood films. Though they're drawn in a clearly retro-Hollywood style, Miyazaki also takes special care to show us how these machines all work, and I could totally believe that these things can be built. Even the most ridiculous devices (A flying bicycle? What?!) are animated in such a way that it never once breached my suspension of disbelief, at least while I was watching it. And if you can make some of these wacky machines look plausible, then you are a genius.

Enough about the visuals, let's look at the audio. Before we really begin, I should explain that this film has two different soundtracks as well as two different English versions (just like Castle of Cagliostro!), so that might be important. (Just as a piece of advice, avoid the 1989 English dub and go straight for the Disney dub instead.) When the film was first released in 1986, they may have had the best animators around, but their songwriter (Mr. Jo Hisaishi) only had a keyboard synthesizer to work with. While the songs he wrote were good, they sound exactly like they were played on a keyboard synthesizer. In the 2003 Disney-funded English dub, however, Disney requested Jo Hisaishi rework the original soundtrack with a full orchestra for the film, and Hisaishi was glad to oblige. The end result was awesome, of course.

I believe most modern copies of the film place the new soundtrack in both the Japanese and English releases, so you don't need to watch the dub to get the new score (which would be a shame, as the 2003 English dub is really good). Oh, by the way, no matter which language you watch the film in, the voice acting is terrific, but I have a soft spot for the English dub, which features James Van Der Beek as Pazu, Anna Paquin as Sheeta, Cloris Leachman as pirate captain Dola, Mark Hamill has Colonel Muska, and Jim Cummings as the General. Great stuff all around.

As far as the story is concerned, I'll be brief: beautifully timeless and instantly memorable. This story of a lost civilization and the people who hold the key to unlock it was originally going to be Miyazaki's stab at the tale of Atlantis combined with Jules Verne's collective works, but he scrapped the idea and pitched it to up-and-coming director Anno Hideaki, who clearly loved the idea. For whatever reason, instead of below the sea, Miyazaki decided to set his lost civilization in the skies--I blame his insane obsession with airplanes--and with a few tweaks to his original idea, Castle in the Sky was born. And if you've been following me for any length of time, you'd know already that I loved the story of Nadia, and so by association, you should understand that I love this film's storyline just as much, if not more.

As a side note, some people claim Nadia ripped off Castle in the Sky. But, as I've already explained above, it's pretty difficult to rip someone off when they explicitly gave you permission to use the ideas they handed to you. So those people are just silly.

But now, I really need to address the glaring flaw in the film before this history lesson goes on too long. Luckily, said glaring flaw is really the only flaw I could find, which is that our main antagonist, Colonel Muska, is a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes. He really only has one note, and that note is "Muahahahaha!!" That's not to say he's not an effective villain--he is very fun to watch and his cockiness makes him quite threatening--but when everything else about the film is so rich and detailed, it just feels strange to have such an unsympathetic and unrelatable villain doing evil things just because they're evil. While Miyazaki would later make more interesting bad guys later on down the line (Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke, for example), Muska just doesn't cut the mustard.

In fact, Muska feels very similar to Count Cagliostro from Castle of Cagliostro, but that was a Lupin III movie and that franchise is known for its simplicity and ridiculousness. Castle in the Sky, on the other hand, is supposed to be a light epic fantasy to be taken somewhat seriously. Oh well, I say. Considering how close to perfection the rest of the movie is, I'm willing to overlook it.

And that about sums it up, really. Castle in the Sky is just a near-perfect movie that happens to have a fairly flat antagonist. And even then, that doesn't make the threat posed by him any less threatening or his character any less enjoyable, but some more motivation would've been nice. Aside from that, this film is a great adventure story that is sure to delight both children and adults alike, so go ahead and watch it with your kids. I guarantee that nobody will leave the room unsatisfied.

Final Score: 10 out of 10. Castle in the Sky's gorgeous visuals and timeless storytelling helped to cement Studio Ghibli's reputation as a powerhouse animation company back in 1986, and time has done nothing to deteriorate that claim.

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      JTurner82 4 years ago

      Actually, I may need to make a little note: the newer score was written exclusively for the Disney version. It's not even on the Japanese dub. Like you, I too thought the new score really brought a lot of color to the movie. But many, many purists detested it to the point they called it a crime against all humanity that destroyed the movie. (A lot of them hated everything about the dub, too, never mind Hamill or Leachman's amazing performances; there are still some who avoid it like the plague.) It was because of such purists that Disney later removed the new score from the English track when they reissued the film on DVD again in 2010 and recently on BluRay. I personally find it heartbreaking, because as I said, the rescore is amazing and easily rivals the (still great) original. I too am a huge fan of the Disney dub; I've never understood the backlash against it, I always considered it an awesome dub as well.