Castle in the Sky was Studio Ghibli’s very first film and you can tell. The drawings are a bit crude and the overall production values aren’t as high as their later films. The characters are mere archetypes (which will be reused in their later films) that the movie has seemingly no interest in developing any further. But Castle in the Sky is also one of Ghibli’s most focused films, it delivers a simple and fun adventure film á la Indiana Jones. We have our likable heroes, our evil villains and a mystery regarding a flying fortress to be solved. Clocking in at over 2 hours I would have liked to seen a bit more depth from these characters as they are nothing special compared to the compelling people of later films. Still, Castle in the Sky is a Ghibli film like no other and if you are okay with an experience more on the shallow side, you are in for a great time.
Castle in the Sky
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Stars (Sub): Keiko Yokozawa, Mayumi Tanaka, Minori Terada
Stars (Dub): Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill
Released: 2 August 1986
Running time: 2h 5min
No spoilers to be found here!
Taking place in a strange world full of mining towns and airships, a young orphaned boy named Pazu (voiced by James Van Der Beek) lives the regular life of a miner. His late father was a pilot with an obsession with a certain mysterious flying fortress, of which he took many photos of. A young girl named Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin) falls from the sky and magically makes a soft landing right in front of Pazu’s house. Both pirates and government official come after Sheeta, forcing her and Pazu to flee the quiet town. During their journey, Pazu realizes that this girl has some sort of connection to the obsession of his father, the titular Laputa – Castle in the Sky.
Out of all Ghibli films, this has to be the most straight-forward one that I have seen. We have a peaceful town with innocent people, an introduction of a new character that starts the main conflict and a straight-up villain who wont stop at anything in order to catch our heroes. The plot is very familiar, as it basically is the template for the “Hero’s journey” -arc, but that doesn’t make it any less effective however. You quickly get sucked into the world and the mystery of the conflict presented thanks to excellent world building and good pacing. There is an interesting mystery to be solved in the film and it features a lot of action and comedy at exactly the right moments. This may not be the deepest film from Studio Ghibli, but it probably will be the closest we will ever come to an Indiana Jones anime.
The worlds featured in the films from Studio Ghibli are often very interesting, even if you exclude the plot and Castle in the Sky is no exception. This world feels very barren, as if there once was an advanced civilization that crumbled, leaving only the more primitive cultures. Pazu lives in a mining town located in a huge valley that also gives me this feeling of a barren land. Then we also see the Miyazaki signature airships, in which there are a lot of in this film. We see plenty of airborne combat and a good chunk of the run time is spent on these flying things. Seeing the flying monstrosities in the empty skies above the barren landscapes reinforces the feeling of emptiness and post-apocalyptic civilization. These are feelings that some other Ghibli movies share, but they still give a lot of depth to the world of Castle in the Sky and makes for a very interesting setting.
As is expected with Studio Ghibli, the movie looks beautiful and the animation is very fluid. It is their earliest movie and therefor doesn’t look as good as some of their newer offerings, but every frame is still drawn with a lot of detail and color. The world itself is what makes it memorable, but with drawings and animation at this level of quality, it only adds to your immersion. As told before, the movie is excellently paced and contains a lot of action set pieces, perhaps more than any other Ghibli film. The set pieces are often quite creative and are all exactly as long as they should be. They contain a lot of fast-paced action and therefor rely heavily on fluid animation in order for the viewer to tell what is going on. I think it works very well in this film, the animation is clear enough in order for the viewer to tell what is going on but there is never to much happening on screen so that you get confused. Castle in the Sky isn’t the best looking Ghibli movie, but it does to this day hold up and the animation, especially in the excellent action set pieces, are extremely well done and probably the high point of the film for me.
I briefly have to mention the robots of the film, as I think they are simply incredible creations. They don’t say anything and simply walk around, reminding you have times past. They make me associate with other stumbling Ghibli giants such as Totoro and The Spirit of the Forest from Princess Mononoke. I think these robots are Studio Ghibli’s most underrated designs and should be known by more people as I find them both beautiful and fascinating.
It almost feels redundant to bring up how amazing the music is in a Studio Ghibli film, but once again the music is incredible. The main theme alone perfectly captures the feeling of loneliness and the lust for adventure. No other tracks can quite match up to the main theme, but there are no bad tracks. Everything fits it’s thought-out situation very well and a lot of quieter moments in the film, especially one in a mine, become a lot more powerful. In short, another great soundtrack from the studio that already has to many.
As you might have noticed, I haven’t brought up the characters at all. While they aren’t awful, they are the biggest issue with the film. As I saw the English version, my critique will be based on the English cast. The two main characters, Pazu and Sheeta, are both young hero archetypes, a standard for Ghibli films. They are likable and the voice actors do a good job, but they never get to be interesting. They go on all manner of amazing adventures and see a lot of different things, but they never go any deeper. Neither of them develop at all and are the same people at the end of the film. It’s almost as if the movie is aware of this and after the main conflict is resolved, it quickly cuts to end credits before we get to say goodbye to the characters we spent over two hours with. Well, we never got to attached to them anyway.
The villain is voiced by Mark Hamill, who does kind of a semi-joker voice, suffers the same problems. He is fun to listen to and Hamill does an excellent job, but he is also a cardboard cut out of a villain who only wants to take over the world at all costs and isn’t any deeper than that. He works as a villain, but really isn’t anything special if you look under the surface.
Out of all the characters, I found the band of Pirates that act as secondary villains throughout the film to be the most interesting. Their leader (and mother) is thought to be modeled after Pippi Longstocking(which as a Swede made me chuckle) but is nothing alike her. She is mean with a dark sense of humor, but also a very practical person who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. These pirates follow our heroes throughout the film and do get some interesting development during the adventure. In summary, most of the characters are shallow blueprints of the standard Hero and villain archetype. A lot of Ghibli films use these types of characters, but they usually expand upon them beautifully to make us care about them. Castle in the Sky does none of this and is seemingly uninterested in presenting compelling characters, which for me is a huge bummer.
Castle in the Sky is a strange and unique film from the studio’s massive library. It presents a simple adventure with innocent heroes dragged into trouble by circumstances outside of their reach and a villain who will stop at nothing to gain world domination. It is their earliest film and does look a bit rough around the edges, but to this day still looks good, filled with fluid animation and impressive action set pieces. The music is also excellent and the design and execution for the robots I simply love. But everything isn’t a bed of roses, it opts to be a simple, Indiana Jones-like film, which of course is fine. But that doesn’t mean that you can completely ignore character building and development, something this film seems uninterested in. The characters are all quite shallow and I don’t care much about any of them. The film seems to be aware of this however and doesn’t rely heavily on character moments. However, in order to levitate Castle in the Sky from a simple film that offers a good time to one of the Ghibli greats, some more work needed to be done in this sector. In the end, Castle in the Sky is a very fun film from Studio Ghibli, probably one of their most accessible because of the excellent pacing and action, but doesn’t leave a huge impression. I’d say it’s pretty good.
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