“A king without compassion does not deserve a kingdom.”
The first film officially animated and released by the newly formed Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky is a delightful adventure full of childlike life and wonder. Night and day when compared with Miyazaki’s previous epic, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, it is decidedly more comical and lighter in tone, though no less of a work of true craftsmanship and attention to detail visually, no less captivating in matters of storytelling.
It finds the best elements of an adventure story and sticks to them from start to finish.
This film has had two English dubs and my review is informed by the second one. Streamline originally put out a dub and it’s widely considered to be inferior to the second by Disney. I’ve had a chance to hear some of the voice acting, for example, on the supposedly rushed production of the Streamline dub and it’s just boring. It’s uninspired and it sounds as if someone was reading a script for the first time and that was the take they used. I will hold fast to the Disney dub, for its flaws, as a great English adaptation with some excellent writing and performances by supporting character actors.
The English version by Disney is also notable for changes made to the original Japanese. One easy difference to spot is the altered title: the original had the name Laputa: Castle in the Sky. This was dropped for the North American release because of its similarity to the Spanish slang f-word. Miyazaki has stated that if he was aware of that, he wouldn’t have used the name. Hence, the title Castle in the Sky.
Actually, Miyazaki isn’t to blame for the name Laputa. He lifted it from Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, or Gulliver’s Travels as it’s better known. In the satirical novel, author Jonathan Swift described a floating city called Laputa mounted on a magnetic circular base. It is filled with Laputians, a funny mathematical people with lilted heads and short attention spans, who lord over the lesser people on the island below them. It’s easy to see what other things inspired Miyazaki’s film. More on that under Themes below.
Another change with the Disney dub: it’s “chattier” with more dialogue added in, though this ended up detracting from the stillness and impact of some scenes (Sheeta being taken as a child). Puzzlingly, the Disney dub leaves out dialogue where the characters’ mouths are obviously moving (Pazu talking to his birds). I re-watched it again with subs just to be sure and yeah there is a line there that’s left out in English. Huh.
Another change took place to alter Sheeta’s speech toward the end of the movie, which makes her words sound less sensible and her point more cliché in the long run. However, the Disney dub ironed out all of the terrible translations (“say bye-bye”) from the Streamline version. Though it has a lively society of naysayers against it, Miyazaki himself approved of it, it never violated his “no cuts” policy, and composer Hisaishi got the chance to re-orchestrate and build upon his original score, ending up happy with the final result.
Looking at Castle in the Sky in this way, you get a vision of an evolution of its presentation taking place, from the now more rudimentary and even dated Japanese version to a more robust and theatrical version with the Disney dub, which itself went on to inform future versions in Japanese.
Castle in the Sky tells its backstory in a similar way to Nausicaä via a series of images under the opening credits. The film is set in a world where people once took to the skies and developed complex flying machines beginning with biplanes and dirigibles, to floating arks and massive airships, then even floating cities and islands. A disaster brought man’s ambitions down like an act of God at the Tower of Babel and now the only thing that remains is Laputa, a castle in the sky, concealed by a vast hurricane.
The drama begins with Sheeta, a young girl with a mysterious past, held captive by government agents aboard an airship. Pirates are in pursuit of the aircraft and board the vessel, facing down guards and gunfire to get to Sheeta. The old leader of the air-pirates, Dola, finds Sheeta but the girl falls from the aircraft before she can be captured, plummeting down to the Earth miles below.In a poor mining town, Pazu is a young boy working as an assistant and living alone. His father was an explorer who took a single photograph of the castle in the sky, though no one believed him and the rejection broke his heart and he died. Pazu desires to find Laputa himself and prove his father was right. One night, while walking up a hill, Pazu sees a girl floating down from the heavens. It’s Sheeta, who fell from the airship above, her necklace billowing with a strange light as she slowly descends into Pazu’s arms.
And so the two meet, launching an exciting adventure where the boy and girl are chased by the Dola Gang of pirates and the government’s agents and army, led by Col. Muska. Both Dola and Muska are after the castle for themselves and know that Sheeta has a powerful connection to the legend and its powers and treasures.
Because the ultimate reveal of the castle is so magical and breathtaking, I’m not going to show you any pictures of it here. You’d be ripping yourself off if you didn’t see the full feature film first.
Castle in the Sky is crowded with a Studio Ghibli staple: lovable, wacky characters. These animators are renown for being able to take the smallest side character and turn them into something adorable and charming. Name almost any Ghibli film and you can probably remember some little creature or person that you just want to hug.
Here in Castle, there are the hilarious pirates, their bizarre family of bumbling boys and captain mom. What a difference between this level of warmhearted comedy and Nausicaä’s straight-faced presentation. It’s apparent right from the opening action piece with the pirates diving headfirst into a group of airmen, falling in a heap of upturned legs and squashing each other as their mom comes crashing down on top of them.
It’s like a cartoon in that you can’t imagine these characters being hurt even if the Looney Tunes dropped an anvil on them. That’s pulled back a little later in the film when things become a little more grave, but the bulk of this adventure remains lighthearted and cheery.
Miyazaki begins to betray his love for airplanes in Castle in the Sky. The wright brothers, early aircraft designs, dirigibles, and some extremely experimental, fantasy airships fill the movie. The army’s Goliath flying machine is a ridiculously-sized, one-ship armada with a host of propellers, ailerons, wings, and rotors stuck onto it seemingly willy-nilly. It’s at once silly but at the same time wonderful, and I think that’s because of the love with which it and everything else was animated.
I’ve sat through Castle in the Sky nearly a dozen times it seems and though the movie is familiar to me by now, it’s not one that I ever grow tired of. Laputa remains a place I’d wish to explore myself, and I really felt that this time watching the film. I want to take that turn that they didn’t, go down that hallway they passed by, walk under the sunlight and feel the chill wind on my face, and pass into the majestic gardens.
This was the first time I thought of Mega Man Legends during this film, and the connection between it and Castle in the Sky is obvious once you think about it. Both the game and the movie involve a young boy and girl adventuring and exploring. Both discover ancient ruins and legends. Both are being confronted by a family of pirates. Even the designs seem to echo each other. Mega Man Legends came out eleven years after this animated movie, the blue bombers 3D adventures may just be the closest video game equivalent to Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.
The gamer in me also detected a bit of original inspiration for Secret of Mana, the Square action-RPG that was released seven years after this film. There’s a moment on Laputa when Pazu and Sheeta come before a gigantic tree and moments later there’s a scene with cranes flying diagonally across the screen in the middleground. Secret of Mana. Particularly canny viewers would also notice Sheeta’s pants are exactly the same as Primm’s.
Even if my two correlations are off-kilter, there’s no denying that Castle in the Sky is a work that went on to influence many, many others. Like the film before it, it’s become a legend just like its titular castle. It is a classic by any definition of the word and it is a delight in the purest of senses. Like a child, you need to just sit down in the middle of the floor, crossed legged, eat some popcorn by the fist-full, and take it all in.
How Ghibli managed to crank out a second masterpiece in succession, I have no idea.
The 8-bit Review
More cartoony than Nausicaä with a lighter tone, I felt that tone translated directly to the animation style which is simpler and less detailed (in the characters) than in the previous film. Many times, groups of characters take on impressioned shapes with limbs like thick tree trunks and cartoon faces. In this sense, the animation is a step down from Nausicaä, but only because it wants to be that way, a more accessible and fun adventure tale than the brooding, post-apocalyptic landscapes of toxic jungles and deserts.
The comical animation, especially with the pirates, is never not fun to look at. This is a laugh-out-loud kinda of movie. However, it’s not like the animation suffered for the sake of telling its jokes.
The backgrounds are just as lush and rich as ever. Miyazaki’s own trip to Wales influenced his animation direction for Pazu’s mining town. One of the most wonderful things about these films are its depictions of places that you know can’t be real but which seem to have life all their own. They seem like they could, somehow, be real if the world were a different way.
Other animation triumphs are things like the sense of weight (when Sheeta is caught by Pazu). That’s not easy to achieve. And there’s the sense of physics as well, with wind moving over drifting wings like a lilting kite. There’s also the attention to detail: Pazu licking his lips before playing his trumpet, Sheeta flicking her braid out of the way when untying a knot. It’s hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny touches like this which equal the total magic of this Ghibli film. They’re all so natural and fleeting that many times they go unnoticed.
A bit of trivia that really resonated with me was the fact that Miyazaki took visual inspiration for his Laputian robots from the Max Fleischer cartoon The Mechanical Monsters starring a Golden Age Man of Steel. The lumbering silver giants fighting off the Last Son of Krypton and flying through the air cued the Japanese animator into creating his own automata which lumbered and flew in nearly the same way. Any history which ties together Superman and Studio Ghibli is enough to make my heart all a-flutter.
Clearly one of the highlights of the English dub by Disney was the opportunity afforded for the expanded score by returning composer Joe Hisaishi. The original music was fitting for the 80’s when Castle originally came out. It was all synthetic and electric, which worked for an anime movie. But when it came overseas, it needed a suitable film score such as appealed to Western audiences. And thank God they made that decision because this score is glorious.
Hisaishi is a very thematic musician and that comes across in this film. It has a handful of themes which reoccur throughout. They come to define the movie, from the epic swelling of the orchestra to the grandiose oohing and aahing of the choir.
Of course no discussion of Castle’s audio can be complete without talking about the voice acting. More on this under Cast, but I can safely say here that the majority of the voice acting is spot on, magnetic, and entertaining. Two of the best are Muska and Dola, with two of the worst unfortunately being Sheeta and Pazu, the leads.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Without as much of a “message” as its predecessor, Castle in the Sky devotes its time and energies to being entertaining. However, that isn’t to say that it has the plot of a modern American blockbuster. This is no “just shut off your brain and enjoy” justification. Castle is so enjoyable because of the world it reveals to us and the depth of its legends and mysteries.
Laputa, as the core of the narrative, seems like such a marvelous place. Yet it’s a place both of beauty and of possible horror. It represents something like Heaven with its verdant gardens tended by gentle giants, yet it is more than capable of raining down Hell, should a particularly vile person rise up to command it. Laputa’s dark and light side, a place of wonderful achievements and terrible powers, of wisdom and greed (like the Kingdom of Zeal in Chrono Trigger), make it all the more enchanting. Tempting, even.
As Col. Muska said, “Laputa’s power is the dream of all mankind!” The dream of surpassing vision. The dream of a perfect society. The dream of ultimate authority. The dream of living like a god.
Sheeta is revealed to be hunted by Dola for her etherium necklace with its ties to Laputa’s treasures, but she is hunted by Muska because he knows her true name. Lusheeta Toelle Ul Laputa. She is the princess and rightful heir of the castle since she is of royal Laputian descent. However, Muska has his own secrets.
His ancient name is Romuska Palo Ur Laputa and he too is a descendant of royal blood from the lineage of the Laputians grounded on Earth after the unspecified disaster. This explains why he spent the government’s resources to find the legendary castle, so that he could use it to reestablish the Laputian kingdom with himself as monarch, but for that he needed the artifact: Sheeta’s etherium necklace. With it, he can call down “the fire of God”, Laputa’s ultimate power and lord over the entire Earth.
Having a degree in religious studies, I find Laputa’s connections to real world lore fascinating with its reference to the Bible and the Ramayana.
In a canon of films that sometimes lean toward “heavy-handed” in their messages and power (see Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Mononoke), Castle in the Sky weighs its dangers with levity. Even at the furthest end of the spectrum in terms of how dire Castle gets, there’s still the sense of pervading adventure which makes everything feel less grim than it would. Muska takes the crystal necklace and commands Laputa, yet we as the audience believe that a little boy with a rocket launcher can save the world together with Sheeta and her half-remembered spells.
There are whiffs of Miyazaki’s favored theme of environmentalism in Castle. This is somewhat watered down in the Disney dub, which changed Sheeta’s line about love from a line about the Earth.
Laputa itself is thematically complex given it’s a loose adaptation of Swift’s Laputa. It is a place representative of human achievements for all of the twin beauty and corruption which that entails. Laputa represents political power. It represents tyrannical rule, or at least the possibility of it when Muska commands it. Perhaps that’s what it once was before its people abandoned it. But it also represents transcendent peace. At the end of the film, it floats up into the heavens, its bottom half with its arcane weaponry destroyed, only the tree and the giant etherium crystal remaining out of reach of humanity.
Sheeta warns “A king without compassion does not deserve a kingdom.” Perhaps what happened to the Laputian people, which is never explained in the film, was something along those lines. Maybe they destroyed themselves with greed and lust. Maybe they were wise enough to abandon that ever-escalating slippery slope. Maybe it really was an act of God or Nature which dethroned them and forced them to the Earth like a bolt of lightning rather than rise up like the angel who shouted “I will be like the Most High”.
Uncle Pom tells Sheeta about her necklace: “That crystal is extremely powerful but with a power that rightfully belongs to the Earth from which it came. To forget that and then to try to use the crystal’s power for selfish reasons will bring great unhappiness… Your crystal should remind us that we come from the Earth and to the Earth we must return.”
Those words may as well be the premise for the entire movie.
There is an air of humility, maybe humiliation, about the loss of the Laputians. For all of their powers and all of their riches, they couldn’t escape the fate of all life. To the Earth they had to return.
Family Friendliness: 9/10
It’s a little weird, and perhaps compounded by the odd casting for the lead roles, when Sheeta is (spoiler: highlight to reveal) shown romantic affection by the obviously older male pirates after being taken in by the gang. Like, one of them even confesses his love for her. It’s a laughable moment but if you stop to think about it, it can make you a little uncomfortable. What is she? Twelve? Fifteen?
One character is shot by a bullet across the face and there’s a spurt of blood. Every time I watch the film I’m always struck by the villains using real handguns and not the typical laser weapons used in a lot of 80’s animations. Seeing real gunfire from real revolvers, even if drawn, may be a little on the shock side, but really there isn’t anything hugely upsetting in this film. It is certainly less scary than the film before it and it is absolutely less terrifyingly sad than Grave of the Fireflies up next. As a childlike adventure, this is one to watch with the kids and enjoy some great laughs.
Alright, on to the real controversy. Let’s start with the good stuff. The best parts about the Disney dub are Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill as Dola and Muska respectively. Both actress and actor are vast improvements over their Japanese counterparts. And I mean that, you purists! Compare Hamill’s Muska to the flat, dead original or Leachman’s lively Dola with the grating, husky original Ma Dola.
Leachman is putting on a voice to play the hard-as-nails old mama pirate but it is such an engaging and fun performance without the disingenuousness of “playing” a voice. She’s a highlight and pulls you into every scene she’s in whether she’s berating Pazu, yelling at her sons, or just shrieking incomprehensibly.
Mark Hamill of course is a legend in his own right and a veteran voice actor. He pulls all of his tricks and all of his weight with this part. He plays Muska as a calculating but smooth individual, a man with a web of plans within plans who knows how to do PR. Talking down to Sheeta in a cooing and condescending voice, then switching moments later to an icy bark to reveal his sense of pride and authority. He makes the serpentine and well-dressed villain perhaps the best performed character in the movie. Who wouldn’t tingle with delight when Hamill pulls out all the stops on Muska’s evil laughter? Notice that the Disney dub even extends that laugh even after the scene changes, making it more ominous, and giving Hamill all the more mic-time to let ‘er rip.
Jim Cummings, Disney trademark, also makes an appearance as the General. You may notice a certain comedian named Andy Dick as one of the pirates, as well.
And now for the two leads. Unfortunately, they’re woefully cast. James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek cryface meme guy) is Pazu and Anna Paquin is Sheeta. Both of them sound way too old for the looks of their characters. Especially Pazu. It is jarring with his first line deliveries in the movie. You’re expecting a boy’s voice and you get a man’s attempting to sound softer. Van Der Beek cracks his voice now and then, which is a nice touch but it can’t mask the fact that Pazu looks like a pre-teen, tops.
Sheeta sounds too old as well and Paquin’s accent wavers between American and British when she is actually Canadian, so her lines are somewhat a mess as well. She also sounds somewhat bored.
Both of those are unfortunate flaws on the Disney dub version and it had to be that they’re the leads, of course. But I’m not going to say that they ruined the film like some people are out there claiming. It’s easy enough to forget about unconsciously and just accept as the film goes on. I even read somebody writing on a forum that they only listen to the subbed version because “celebrities can’t voice act”. If that isn’t the epitome of hyperbole. Tell that to Pixar and Studio Ghibli. You can mail your apology to Mark Hamill, random forum commenter.
All things taken into consideration, like the bulk of the Ghibli canon, Castle in the Sky is a unique film which stands on its own two legs. It takes an interesting setting from an old novel and turns it into a whole fantastical world of flying machines, treasure hunters, and floating cities with its own history and mythology.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I echo John Lasseter. This is one of my favorite movies. Miyazaki and Ghibli have together made some of my favorites but this one is special. You remember perhaps when you were a kid, when “exploring” was something that could take up your whole day and spur on all kinds of heights of imagination, even if it was just your own backyard you were exploring. Castle in the Sky manages to grab hold of all those long summer afternoons, all the basking in the warm glows of late sunsets, all the magic of watching the stars on dark evenings, all of the multicolored wonders of childhood and condense them into paper and colors and ink. Castle in the Sky is like a memory out of years you’ve long past. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to remember the dream of flight.
Aggregated Score: 8.4