Laputa: Castle in the Sky Anime Review
Tenkuu no Shiro Laputa
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In a world very similar to our own, young Pazu works at a mine, assisting Mr. Duffy with the heavy machinery. One night he sees something shining slowly descending from the sky. It is a young girl named Sheeta, who is wearing a pendant of rare levitation stone. Both a band of pirates led by their mother Dola, and the military led by Colonel Muska are after the girl, trying to find the secret of Laputa, the legendary flying island and Pazu finds himself thrown into a merry mess of trouble as the two groups struggle for the girl and the island.
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I'll say it straight off: this is an incredible film. From Hayao Miyazaki, the master of anime who did Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and more recently Princess Mononoke comes a magical tale of ancient technology, sky piracy and young love which will delight all ages. It's a work of art like nothing you've ever seen before, unless it's another Miyazaki work. The story sets this film apart even more than the art; full of twists and turns, it is a magnificent tale.
If you have any appreciation for fine anime or any respect for possibly the greatest Japanese anime director of all time, you must see this film. Trust me. It's for your own good.
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[Editor's note: This review was written before the Disney release made the film easily available to viewers in the West; the comments at the end reflect this, and the English dub comments refer to the older dub, not Disney's version.]
I'll say it straight off: this is an incredible film. Does the name Hayao Miyazaki mean anything to you? From the Master of Japanese Animation who did Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and more recently Princess Mononoke comes a magical tale of ancient technology, sky piracy and young love which will delight all ages. Jeez, I'm starting to sound like a theatrical trailer!
But seriously, this film is like nothing you've ever seen before, unless it's another Miyazaki work. It's the work of Studio Ghibli and can accurately be described as a work of art. Some of the characters designs are honestly rather standard--especially Sheeta who looks like a younger version of Princess Clarise, but they're good designs so why complain? The landscapes are wonderfully crafted with a fine eye for detail and although the robots look a little odd, their design kind of grows on you until you'll regard them as cool.
The English voices [in the old dub] are quite good, although Shita is a little bit too much "little girl" for her own good and Dola will have you wincing until you get used to it. The musical score is absolutely wonderful, switching from tense and exciting themes when they're riding the Mosquito Fighters to heavy, threatening music when the robot is wreaking havoc. There are times when you are meant to just sit back and take in what is going on and there is a beautiful string piece which makes you feel all lovely inside.
But now we get onto the part that really counts--the storytelling. This story is one of the best I have ever heard and it is what makes this film really stand out. Twisting and turning, never giving you any clues as to what will happen next and keeping you constantly surprised and engaged, Laputa is a magnificent tale, the likes of which only Miyazaki could create.
I really, really can't stress how amazing this film is. No, not amazing because it's really flashy--if you want something really flashy you'd better look elsewhere. I can't stress how brilliant this film is. Yes, that's a much more general adjective. Unfortunately it's rather hard to find; it had a limited American cinema release in 1989 and was apparently screened on TV somewhere in China (I know this because I borrowed my tape of a Chinese contact, and it came with Chinese subtitles) but it isn't legally available anywhere in the Western world. [Note: It is now, thanks to Disney.]
But don't let that stop you! Find a bootleg copy, go to Hong Kong and search the black market, do anything, but if you have any appreciation for fine anime or any respect for possibly the greatest Japanese anime director of all time, you must see this film. Trust me. It's for your own good.
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Similar in ways to several of Miyazaki's other films, most significantly Nausicaa for the grand-scale plot, and Howl's Moving Castle for the fantasy world.
Notes and Trivia
Laputa is an original story written by Miyazaki for this film; a novel version was later written, and included Miyazaki illustrations.
Although Disney markets the DVD as simply "Castle in the Sky," the full title of the film is "Laputa: Castle in the Sky," with the term "Laputa" borrowed from the floating island in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The parallel is appropriate, except for the fact that Laputa is a crude epithet in Spanish, a fact Swift was aware of when he named his island but Miyazaki was not. This is why Disney uses a different title in North America.
Aside from the high-profile English dub produced by Disney, there was a much older dub that saw very limited theatrical release in the US in 1989 in the hands of old-time anime company Streamline. Streamline did not produce the dub; as with Porco Rosso it was produced so the film could be shown on international flights as the in-flight movie.
The musical score actually has two versions; there is the original score used in the Japanese version of the film, but Disney requested a more "music-filled" score for the English dub, apparently to better fit the expectations of young theater-goers. The original composer, longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, was called in to re-write the score and add significantly more music to it. The soundtrack available domestically in the US is this "alternate" version; the original has about half as many tracks, although it has somewhat less "force" than the newer score.
In a final note, the new Disney dub features a name many will be familiar with in the role of Muska, the villain: Mark Hamill, probably better known as Luke Skywalker. If you don't follow voice acting circles what you might not know is that he is a talented voice actor who has worked on a huge number of productions since the '90s. He rarely does anime dubbing, but is scheduled to appear in the upcoming Robotech revival.
US DVD Review
Like Disney's other Studio Ghibli DVDs, the Castle in the Sky set is a heck of a set--attractive anamorphic widescreen video, high-profile English dub with Dolby 5.1 audio, full Japanese version with accurate subtitles, and even a French dub. There's an entire second disc of bonus goodies, too--interviews with the voice actors, storyboards, and more.
Acceptable for almost all viewers, although there are a few tense moments.
Violence: 2 - There's a fair bit of destruction and a slapstick brawl, but the violence is mostly very mild.
Nudity: 0 - No.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing.
Language: 0 - Not even mild slang. Truly, a genuine family film.