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Castle in the Sky

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/28/05 17:00:49

"Straddles the line between familiy- and adult-oriented Miyazaki."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

For "Castle in the Sky" ("Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta"), Studio Ghibli's first "official" production, Hayao Miyazaki’s tautly paced action/adventure, science fiction/fantasy anime, Miyazaki created an imaginary Europe of impossible flying machines, air pirates, magic, teen heroes and heroines, giant, winged robots, and a mythical island in the sky, Laputa (an idea and name borrowed from Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels"), which promises untold treasures and power. We’re firmly in steampunk territory here, in an alternate Victorian-era Europe where technological developments occurred earlier in time and were powered by steam. Steampunk as a fiction genre is closely related to Jules Verne’s speculative fictions of the nineteenth century, but with a decidedly contemporary, anti-authoritarian, dystopian streak.

From practically the opening scene in Castle in the Sky, the two principal characters, Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin in the English-language dub), a young, parentless girl kidnapped by nefarious government operatives and Pazu (James Van Der Beek), a young orphan who lives and works in an economically depressed mining town called Slag's Ravine, are drawn into a maelstrom of reversals, perilous, life-or-death (mis)adventures, escapes from a family of air pirates, and the authoritarian government agent, Muska (Mark Hamill), who has the army and the army's weapons at his disposal. Sheeta literally drops into Pazu’s life, as an attempted escape from Muska’s airship (and air pirates) results in a precipitous fall from the airship and into Pazu’s waiting arms. Sheeta doesn’t fall as much as floats down like a feather, thanks to the magic pendant tied around her neck, a family heirloom that once belonged to her grandmother.

As we soon discover, Sheeta is being pursued hotly pursued by both the government (and a well-equipped army) and a family of air pirates, led by the irascible, if indomitable, captain/matriarch, Dola (Cloris Leachman). Dola has a modest-sized airship of her own, the “Tiger Moth,” with her comically inept sons as her crew. Muska counters with the “Goliath,” a massive, cylindrical, propeller-powered gunship. Pazu also has a connection to Laputa: Pazu’s late father, a pilot, once saw and photographed a mist-shrouded island in the sky. Pazu's obsessed with restoring his late father's reputation (a half-built airship takes up most of the space in his workroom).

Sheeta and Pazu’s adventures lead them above ground, via a train and tunnel chase (complete with armored trains), an army fortress (where a sleeping giant robot has been stored), below ground, into the mines, where they discover a thing or two about the magic crystal and Laputa, and into the skies, where they make an unusual alliance to help them find Laputa (ostensibly to stop Muska from arriving there first and unlocking Laputa's many secrets). At Laputa, they uncover the fate of the Atlantis-like inhabitants, and, in heroic fashion, attempt to stop the Muska’s plans for Laputa and the distant world below.

Miyazaki gave his visual imagination full reign in Castle in the Sky, from the depiction of an alternate past and world, both familiar and strange, to the fetishized detail paid to the airships, gunships, even the pirates’ insect-like planes (they impossibly emulate the wings of dragonflies), to the giant robot found inside the army fortress, whose broken appearance and internal programming leads to a confrontation inside the fortress, to the individual set pieces, including Sheeta’s gentle, weightless fall through a nighttime sky and the train and tunnel chase, to the repeated images of the airships (and gunships) floating above the clouds, and finally, the Laputa itself, a melancholic vision of a vanished way of life, the embodiment of Miyazaki’s themes of over reliance on modern technology, the potential for misusing that technology, and the separation of humankind from the natural world.

In Miyazaki's films, a desire or concern for a simpler, ecologically sustainable, harmonious life can be found, but here, even more than in his other films with similar themes ( Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke come to mind), Miyazaki keeps his proclivity for sermonizing to a minimum, instead relying on the themes to emerge organically from the story itself. Indeed, Castle in the Sky may be Miyazaki’s most entertaining film, relying on perfectly calibrated action sequences to keep the audience fully immersed in the world of Sheeta, Pazu, and Laputa.

Parents interested in viewing or purchasing "Castle in the Sky" for their children, however, should note that Miyazaki's film contains scenes of suggested violence (and death) inappropriate for smaller children. "Castle in the Sky" lacks the thematic complexity of "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" and "Princess Mononoke," but its target audience does consist of older, more sophisticated children and, of course, adults.

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