Laputa: Castle in the Sky Review

Technically speaking Laputa: Castle in the Sky (also known simply as Castle in the Sky) was the very first Studio Ghibli venture. The Little Norse Prince may have initiated Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki’s working relationship, The Castle of Cagliostro may have represented Miyazaki’s cinematic directorial debut, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind may have been the first to begin the filmmakers’ associations with publisher Tokuma. Yet with Laputa we finally see the Studio itself in existence, one built on the back of their previous successes. As such it’s hard not to see the film as some of kind of celebration of this achievement by way of homage to these earlier hits. Just like Nausicaä it’s a fully-fledged fantasy existing wholly in a world of its own creation; the opening credit sequence presenting numerous floating castles high above the clouds. Just like Cagliostro there’s a European flavour to the animation and a certain madcap, zany energy prevalent in much of its first half.

Not that the depth of reference ends here, especially if we look at Laputa in the wider context of Miyazaki’s career. Draw up the main plot details and thematic concerns and we arrive at a veritable map/guide of his oeuvre. The young hero and heroine could be Hols, the little Norse prince, and Nausicaä. The world in which they inhabit – all giant chimneys, propellers and other steampunk attachments – is also reminiscent of Nausicaä whilst looking forward to Princess Mononoke. The sense of community spirit found in our young hero’s mining town during the early stages (apparently inspire by a trip Miyazaki undertook to Wales in the early eighties) again brings to mind all three of the films mentioned thus far. The villains sport neckerchiefs and debonair facial hair not unlike those found in Cagliostro. There are references to Western literature – explicitly Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson, and arguably Ted Hughes too – which can be evinced everywhere from the early TV adaptation of Heidi right up to Howl’s Moving Castle. And this latter effort also comes up again if we compare titles.

Yet it’s debatable as to whether this should be considered a good or a bad thing. After all, does it make Laputa one of the definitive Ghibli titles as a result or rather a mere handy compendium? To be honest, the film often comes across both ways. Admittedly, it may simply be the case that I’ve finally caught up with this particular effort at the wrong time (i.e. after having seen pretty much everything else), but this sheer weight of inter-reference proves to be too much during the first half. At this point Laputa is little more than an elaborate chase movie in which our heroine is pursued by sundry villains and sky pirates who wish to obtain a crystal she possesses and the key it holds to the mythical castle in the sky. As such – some fine set pieces aside – it’s easy to become distracted by the fact that it resembles so many other Miyazaki movies and consequently also difficult to care about all that much.

And yet any film which contains all the elements detailed above really can’t be doing all that much wrong. Indeed, Miyazaki’s great skill is evident in terms of design and invention (all the more remarkable given how Laputa was hand drawn in its entirety), whilst once the narrative does begin to settle down and develop into a much grander epic it grows into something far more resonant that a simple ‘best of’. As the storytelling takes on more weight, so too do the characters. Once again we find Miyazaki dealing in numerous moral ambiguities as the pirates reveal themselves as comparative good guys and the castle itself turns out to be something really quite beautiful and ultimately destructive. He proves especially adept in this latter aspect thanks to the introduction of a robot character (or rather characters) at once a devastating force in their own right and capable of the sweetest moments of innocence.

In fact, the latter half may very well represent Miyazaki’s richest work and as such his finest hour (and a bit…). The ambiguities firmly refuse any narrative complacency or laziness, and the overall feel of the film is that of a huge romantic sweep. In comparison the likes of Cagliostro and Kiki’s Delivery Service feel very small indeed (though that’s not meant as a disservice to either) which makes it a shame that Laputa takes so long to find its feet. That said, and as I’ve already acknowledged, this may simply be a personal failing, the result of saving this particular effort until last (or near enough). However, if this does prove to be the case on a more widespread scale, then it should mark Laputa out as the ultimate first step for the newcomer – after all, everything’s there.

The Disc

As with the majority of Optimum’s Ghibli releases so far, their Laputa handling is another NTSC-PAL transfer. (To date only Spirited Away has escaped unaffected.) However, it’s also true that this doesn’t prove too much of a distraction with only a slight loss in clarity on the long shots being apparent and moderate ghosting affecting the more hectic movements and panning shots. Otherwise, we find the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced of course, and taken from a flawless print. There’s no damage to speak of and the colours look superb. Only the English language end-titles come across as slightly grainy, though hopefully many won’t see this as a problem. As for the soundtrack we find the choice of the original Japanese DD2.0 recording and the English language dub which Disney prepared for the film’s US release a few years back. Subtitles are also available for both in the form of literal ones for the Japanese mix and hard of hearing dubtitles for the English offering. Note, however, that the subtitles are of the dreaded yellow variety and therefore may prove distracting. With regards to differences between the two, both are technically sound throughout – crisp, clear and clean – whilst Bex’s review of the previous R2 release from Buena Vista holds a discussion of differing voice casts and can be found here.

The extras on the other hand are serviceable, and mostly welcome, although there’s nothing here to get overly excited about. There’s the standard Optimum offering of a multi-angle storyboard function, the usual reams of trailers for this and other Ghibli titles, opening and closing textless credit sequences and a brief, wordless featurette which intercuts the opening titles with various storyboard designs.

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