Castle in the Sky Review
NOTE: This Buena Vista DVD release has since been deleted and replaced by an Optimum Asia release which is reviewed here.
Castle in the Sky is yet another film in the impressive stable of Studio Ghibli (of Hayao Miyazaki fame). Originally titled 'Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta' (literally 'Castle in the Sky Laputa') and often referred to simply as 'Laputa', it rather famously had its title amended for its recent UK and US releases in order to avoid any connotation with the Spanish word 'la puta' (which, yes, has an unsavoury definition).
As it turns out, the name was borrowed from Gulliver's Travels, in which Laputa is a floating island full of scientists with their heads in the clouds... both literally and figuratively. But where Swift created Laputa to make a satirical point in his larger tale, Miyazaki takes the floating island and spins a pure fantastical yarn around it. The only real connections between the two tales are the name, the floating schtick, and the fact that it was inhabited by scientists (in Miyazaki's case, quite a while before the main events of the story take place).
Miyazaki both penned the original story and directed the film, in fact basing the Slug Ravine (where our ostensible hero lives) on a Welsh mining town, after a location trip to the country impressed him. Unsurprisingly for any animation helmed by Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky has achieved great success and renown, winning everything from the Ofuji Award at the Mainichi Movie Competition, 'First Place for Japanese Films' at the Osaka Film Festival, and 'Best Animé at the 9th Animé Grand Prix', amongst others. In the West it has so far had a somewhat smaller audience; however, as people see Miyazaki's more recent films (Spirited Away, etc.) and find themselves wanting to learn more about the director, earlier creations like Castle in the Sky are finally beginning to get more of the audience and recognition they deserve... if only through these DVD releases.
The story revolves around Sheeta, a mysterious girl with a valuable and magical stone necklace. As the show opens, we observe her aboard an airship with Muska (a special agent of the government who has kidnapped her in order to locate the floating island of Laputa), but the adventure gets off to a fast start as the ship is assailed by a gang of pirates headed up by a no-nonsense 'granny' called Dola (who is also interested in finding Laputa, albeit for its treasure, rather than the sheer magical power which Muska hopes to harness).
During the airborne confrontation, Sheeta attempts to escape Muska's clutches only to slip from the ship and plummet towards Earth... but then something remarkable happens: her necklace slows her descent. Pazu, our young hero, glimpses a strange light in the sky and upon investigating finds Sheeta's body floating gently down towards him. He catches the girl and brings her home so she can recover. As they get to know each other the following day, we discover that Pazu too has a particular interest in finding Laputa... but rather than seeking money or power, his desire is simply to prove that his father (an adventurer, of course) was right about its existence, which the latter once half-glimpsed through a veil of clouds. For her part, Sheeta also shares with him a secret of her own – that her true name (Lusheeta Toel-ul LAPUTA) strongly suggests her family has some ancestral link to the mysterious floating island.
Anyway, it's not long before government agents, the military, and pirates are all after Sheeta again, leading to the usual chase scenes, inevitable capture, and the separation of the protagonists. Pazu strikes up a strange alliance with the pirates (who naturally turn out to be not all that bad once you get to know them), and it's only with their assistance that Sheeta is eventually rescued from captivity. The two kids are permitted to tag along with the pirates so long as they help clean and cook on their airship. Along the way it finally becomes clear that Sheeta is in fact Laputian royalty (the last 'princess' in the line, if you will), and that the calculating Muska himself seems dangerously well informed about the island. Things are only made more dicey by the fact that, in the course of her escape, Sheeta accidentally activated the magical stone which points the way to Laputa. Naturally at this point it becomes a classic race as to who gets to the island first... the pirates or the military (under Muska's control).
When the film's action finally reaches Laputa, it's clear that the island is deserted, bar a solitary gardening robot who seems more or less indifferent to the new arrivals. Muska's plans to use the vast scientific knowledge and advance technological arsenal still stored in the island are fully revealed, and of course there are many chases and acts of derring-do as events move towards the film's climax. Without giving too much away, it's a really enjoyable and well thought-out action sequence that explains Muska's personal motivations while bringing the story to closure without ever becoming stale or over-complicated.
The music of Castle in the Sky is atmospheric throughout and really fits the film well, giving many hummable tunes throughout. As usual, the acting is strong in the original Japanese soundtrack, although I've found it a bit of a struggle to find out much about most of the voice actors themselves. Pazu is voiced by the experienced Mayumi Tanaka, whose previous experience includes Yajirobe and Kuririn in Dragonball and Dragonball Z, Giovanni in Night on the Galactic Railroad, Tsukayama Yutarou in Rurouni Kenshin, Fujinami Ryuunosuke in Urusei Yatsura, and Koenma in Yu Yu Hakusho. Sheeta is voiced by Keiko Yokozawa, who has also played Annin in Dragonball Z, Ten's mother in Urusei Yatsura, and various other lesser roles. I can't turn up much about the other principal voice actors... which is a shame, as they do a great job here.
I'm afraid the new Disney English dub is quite a bit weaker by comparison. Whereas their dub for Kiki's Delivery Service was pretty good and certainly easy to listen to, here it's a little more grating on the ears. The cast this time around includes James Van Der Beek (Dawson's Creek, Rules of Attraction) as Pazu and Anna Paquin (X-Men, The Piano) as Sheeta. Neither have had any voice acting experience before and both sound a little too old for the characters they're voicing. Pazu in particular suffers from sounding obviously like an adult in the body of a child. It's not terrible terrible, mind you, but it did draw me away from the action enough to think – 'that doesn't sound quite right' – and that's just something a dub shouldn't do. The rest of the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill (of Star Wars fame) as Muska, and he does a better job of it – but then again, he's had a pile of voice work, including many computer games as well as cartoons such as The Little Mermaid, Batman: The Animated Series and The Powerpuff Girls. Finally two of the comical pirates are voiced by Michael McShane (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, True Colors) – and need I mention that they do a pretty good job!
All-in-all, the story is fantastic and well-animated, as we've been led to expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It was a total surprise to me, because I'd never seen it before and I really enjoyed the experience. The mix of a good adventure with action and humour is always a winner in my books – and that is certainly the case here!
Picture & Sound
The animation style isn't exactly the same as Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service, but you can definitely see its provenance in this earlier film (Castle in the Sky was originally released in 1986 in Japan!). In fact, to me the animation here had a touch of Castle of Cagliostro to it – a film Miyazaki served as filmographer on. Either way, the artwork is full of excellent detail and the transfer here is very clean considering the age of the source material. Colours are rich and clean, with only some artifacting and halo effects being noticeable. The picture is presented in anamorphically in 1.85:1.
The original Japanese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which allows for clear dialogue and pleasant background music but is hardly show-stopping in any sense of the word; it's a pleasantly utilitarian soundtrack. The English dub, on the other hand, is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and as such is naturally an improvement in richness and directionality over the flatness of its Japanese predecessor. However, as I pointed out earlier, it's a case of whether you prefer better voice acting and what is essentially a stereo mix (Japanese) or distinctly weaker voice acting but better overall sound quality (English). Both soundtracks perform as they should – but my preference here is for the Japanese.
By the way, the disc comes with three sets of subtitles: English, 'English for the hard of hearing', and French. The English subtitles take the disappointing form of dubtitles – word for word subtitles of the dub script, as opposed to the (usually) preferred literal translation subtitles that we find in most animé.
Menus, Extras & Packaging
The menus on this DVD are a definite improvement over the ones supplied with its sister disc (Kiki's Delivery Service), with the majority of them being fully animated and accompanied by lovely music clips from the film.
Extras are again fairly small in number, if weighty in size. The storyboards for the entire film are included and you can watch them with the soundtrack playing over them, giving an insight into how the animation was originally conceived. (Curiously, whereas the feature-length storyboards extra on the Kiki's Delivery Service DVD has the audio locked to the original Japanese, here it is locked to the English dub instead. I personally don't see the rationale behind either decision. Considering that feature-length audio is available in multiple languages, surely the distributor could have left it up to the viewer to choose his or her preferred language to accompany the storyboards. Oh, well.) There is also the 4-minute original Japanese trailer included on this disc, and – as with the storyboards – you can turn the subtitles on or off while watching it, depending on whether you want to see the full thing without words over it.
The packaging is colourful, the front cover featuring a lovely picture of the floating island with Pazu and Sheeta looking on from an airborne scooter-type vehicle. As with its companion release, there is no insert in the Amaray case.
Castle in the Sky is a superb animated film, graced with good storyline, epic adventure, gripping action sequences, goofy humour... and speaking of which, let's not forget the pirates! In short, it's another classic Miyazaki fantastical tale which won't fail to impress. This particular DVD release is fairly good, though a shame about the dubtitles. Nevertheless, hopefully it will give this film a much wider audience around the world, and that can't be bad.