March 3 , 2004
Castle in the Sky is a heartwarming bliss-out of a movie, full of spirit and fun, and reminds you of the kind of movies Hollywood used to make long ago. Watching, I am reminded of the golden age of Hollywood romantic swashbucklers, of Errol Flynn and Saturday afternoon serials. Is it odd that today's live-action movies are increasingly becoming more and more cartoonish? That genuine spark of imagination is increasingly hard to come by, lost in a sea of plasticized computer animation. Yet here is a swashbuckling picture that’s worth its weight in popcorn.
Castle in the Sky is something of an adventure chase movie, about two children who search for a legendary city behind the clouds. Sheeta, the girl, is pursued by the army, government agents (who will remind you of the Agents from The Matrix), and a gang of pirates; she carries a jeweled family pendant that may hold the key to discovering the city, named Laputa after Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Sheeta, like every Miyazaki heroine, is confident and assertive, and would sooner grab a glass bottle and knock out her captors than merely wait to be rescued.
After an assault on a zeppelin, Sheeta escapes both the agents and the pirates, and is discovered by Pazu, a wide-eyed boy who lives in a mountainside mining town. He loves to build airplanes, and dreams of adventure; he practically bursts at the seams when he’s speaking of his late father’s accidental discovery of Laputa. Like Sheeta, he is also an orphan, and becomes a kindred spirit; the blossoming romance is both eloquent and old-fashioned in that classic Hollywood way. “When you fell out of the sky, my heart was pounding,” Pazu tells her. “I knew something wonderful was about to happen.” It’s a great line.
The success of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind enabled Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to create an independent animation studio, where they could create their own unique works. Most of the key players from the Nausicaa film were brought on board, including key animators and composer Joe Hisaishi (his score is excellent), and Studio Ghibli was born. Castle in the Sky was the first Ghibli release, and fills the requirement of a well-rounded crowd-pleaser. The tone of the film is lighter than Nausicaa, and less serious; a goofy anarchy is scattered throughout. The pirate gang is largely composed of an older woman named Dora (a dead ringer for Pipi Longstockings’ mother) and her bumbling sons, mama’s boys, all. Outlaws, yes, but disarming characters who grow on you by the end.
There is a great scene early on, where the Dora boys get into a macho boxing match with Pazu’s adoptive father. It’s a sequence of huffing and flexing and punching, and pretty soon the whole town is brawling. It’s all great screwball comedy, like something out of It’s a Mad, Mad World or Blazing Saddles. This sets up one of the most inventive chase scenes Miyazaki, or anyone, has ever filmed, involving the Dora clan, the children, and the military across a series of vertigous bridges and trains.
There are a number of thrilling chases, set squarely in the adventure serial mold, involving trains, giant robots (a tribute to Max Fleisher’s Superman cartoons), flying fortresses, gliders, and aircraft that resemble giant beetles. This is a Miyazaki film; there is a lot of flying, more than in any of his movies save Porco Rosso, and everything has a free, sweeping flair. There isn’t another filmmaker that makes flight so boldly romantic.
Throughout everything lies some wonderful animation and artwork. Castle in the Sky is a great-looking movie. You see how the creativity unleashed in Nausicaa has grown, as every succeeding Ghibli production does; you can practically see the gears turning in the filmmakers’ heads. There is an emphasis on background detail, and composition and framing, in minor touches and quieter moments where nothing much really happens.
The influence is much closer to live-action cinema than the American style, which emphasizes liquid movement and very fast cutting (the reasoning is that audiences can’t sit still for more than two seconds). One of my favorite scenes involves Pazu’s morning ritual of playing his trumpet to a collection of doves; the birds are fed when the song is done. I love this moment precisely because it has no bearing on the plot; we're simply being asked to enjoy the moment. These moments reoccur repeatedly, especially in Castle’s final third, when the floating island of Laputa is discovered and all the players come to a head.
The world of Castle in the Sky is an inventive mix of futuristic and Victorian-era technology. Pazu’s town is based on a Welsh mining town, with houses cut across giant mountain gorges, locomotives, and Model T’s. It all fits into the spirit of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and, yes, Swift. Why does so much animation, Japanese and American, follow such dull, slavish formulas when such uncharted territory remains un-mined?
The final act becomes quite serious, with reflections on nature and war and human frailty; the scenes on Laputa are inspired, in part, by Miyazaki’s Nausicaa books, and are genuinely moving. Miyazaki is an entertainer in the grandest sense, a gentile Steven Spielberg; he’s Spielberg without the schmaltz.