CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

Tenku no shiro Laputa; AKA Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING (U.S. Dubbed Version): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman

PLOT: A girl who falls from the sky and an orphaned boy search together for a legendary floating

Still from Castle in the Sky (1986)

city while being chased by flying pirates and a secret airborne government agency.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s an enthralling and magical children’s adventure, Castle in the Sky is also one of the more conventional fantasies in the catalog of a director whose work only flirts with weirdness.

COMMENTS: Castle in the Sky plays so much like an adaptation of a classic Western children’s book that it’s a surprise to learn that Japanese Hayao Miyazaki wrote the story basically from scratch. (The base concept of the floating city of Laputa is borrowed from Johnathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels, so a European literary connection does exist). Castle is epic in scope, featuring lost cities, magical artifacts, hidden destinies, and deadly giant robots; and yet, it’s all told from a child’s-eye view. After a lengthy earthbound prologue, most of the important action happens in an airy imaginary realm: not just in the floating city itself, but also in a stratosphere full of massive floating battleships, eternally aloft propeller-driven pirate vessels, and dragonfly-shaped personal aircraft. Its the kind of imaginary universe that doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief for kids, who simply assume that adventures like these take place over their heads and above the clouds every day. Although pint-sized, the boy hero, Pazu, is emancipated and on equal footing with grown-ups: he has a full-time job working in the mines and, as an orphan, he’s self-sufficient and lives on his own. Similarly, female lead Sheeta is also free of parents, and is perfectly capable of taking out those taller than she is with a well-placed wine bottle to the back of the head. The fact that there’s a hero for kids of either gender to identify with rates as a plus, though feminists who are keeping count may note that Pazu comes to Sheeta’s rescue a bit more than the other way around. Little girls will doubtlessly see Castle as the story of Sheeta discovering and recovering her rightful role in the world, while boys will relate to Pazu’s adventures and the way he both vindicates his dad’s memory and surpasses pop’s achievements. The two even have a totally Platonic romance, and Sheeta is tomboyish enough that she won’t ick the boys out. The supporting characters are memorable. Muska is a mysterious and manipulative ascot-wearing villain, despicable without being too terrifying for tykes, but Dola (voiced by Chloris Leechman in the Disney dub) steals the show as the gruff pirate matron with a hidden heart and stiff pink pigtails. Action and chase scenes, whether by train, airplane, or on foot are frequent, and there are a lot more firefights than you’d find in a domestic Disney offering (although no one in the movie actually gets struck by a bullet, both sides sure discharge a lot of ordnance). Artistically, it’s typical Miyazaki; there is that cutesy “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe to the big-eyed anime faces, but everything is so fluid, colorful and imaginative, especially in the majestic widescreen aerial views, that it rises far above hack work. There’s a delightful steampunk/Jules Verne quality to the airship designs, particularly the rickety pirate ship with a network of brass tubes used for communication and laundry flapping in the breeze on its exposed causeways. There’s not too much in terms of weirdness here—keep an eye out for a gang of toughs incongruously dressed in white and pink leisure suits with yellow bow ties, and for Miyazaki’s brief 2001 tribute when the youngsters fly through an electrical storm en route to the floating island in the hurricane’s eye—but the magical vistas will evoke a childish wonder in all but the most jaded adults. If you’re looking for something to gripe about, James Van Der Beek’s “gee-whiz” voicing of Pazu could get on your nerves after two hours. But listening to Van De Beek trying to forget that he’s gone through puberty is a small price to pay to watch Miyazaki’s soaring imagination at work.

Castle in the Sky is one of many Miyazaki films that IMDB users have tagged with “surrealism.” Although the director’s fanciful visuals suggest that his fan base is likely to overlap with people who are interested in surrealism (thus his coverage on these pages), we have to wonder what the people doing the tagging actually think “surrealism” is. Do they think it’s just a synonym for “fantasy”? How would people who think Castle in the Sky represents surrealism tag, for example, an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie: as “superdupersurrealism”?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Miyazaki’s world, so full of color and life, is always just across the borderline of imagination, its acute details softened by clouds and shadows, its principles revealed by actions more than words.”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

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