Monday, August 1, 2011

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Title: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Director: Hiyao Miyazaki

Castle in the Sky was the first official Miyazaki film to be released under the Studio Ghibli banner, it would be the film that presented the new animation studio to the world, so it was a film on which a lot was riding on. Of course, Miyazaki and crew must have been concerned with this film making an impression on Japanese movie goers, so it had to start with a bang, and it had to be something special. Miyazaki achieved this with great success; Laputa is a very fun and entertaining film with extremely lovable characters. For me all of Miyazaki ’s films are special treats, but I found myself having an especially great time with this one. I think a lot of my enjoyment had to do with the characters which are so much fun, so alive and so hilarious! Some of Miyazaki ’s films can be serious affairs, like Princess Mononoke for example, but Castle in the Sky was fun all the way for me because it did a fine balancing act between comedy, sci-fi elements and adventure.

On this film we meet two characters, Sheeta a young girl who is being chased by the government and by pirates and Pazu, a little boy who works helping out miners. What is so precious about this little girl? She carries with her a magical pendant that can make your body weightless, and number two it can show you the way to ‘Laputa’, a mystical flying city. Not many have seen Laputa, but those who have seen it or know of its existence will stop at nothing to learn the secrets of its powers. You see, it is said that at one time Laputa and its civilization ruled over the earth with it’s advanced technology. Will all that power fall on the wrong hands? Will the long lost city of Laputa be brought back to life once again?

Filmmakers are storytellers, and the best of storytellers use their abilities to send out a positive message to the masses, to lash out against the evils of the world and to speak out for the people. Miyazaki is such a filmmaker; many of his films have an environmentalist or anti-war message attached to them. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is about a Princess protecting nature, Princess Mononoke (1997) dealt with similar subject manner and Castle in the Sky can be added to this roster of Miyazaki films with a social conscience. On this one, the villain of the piece is called Muska, a man hell bent on learning the power behind Sheeta’s magical pendant and finding the lost city of Laputa . His main goal? To harness the power of the floating city and conquer the world with it; to teach those he considers less than himself a lesson or two. In one moment, Muska speaks of himself as superior to other humans, humans whom he considers stupid and below him. The main focus of the film is politician’s lust for power, and the responsibility that accompanies the power they crave. This is a common theme in some of Miyazaki’s films, for example in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaa is a good, just ruler whose subjects admire and care for because she treats them with justness and respect. On Castle in the Sky we have a madman who wants to be a ruler, but is ultimately corrupted by this power. With Castle in the Sky Miyazaki’s is accentuating the importance of humility in rulers and the need for them to be compassionate with their people, to not let power go to their heads.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Castle in the Sky is the pirate family that we meet. They all live together in this pirate ship that flies around the skies, always looking for the next treasure. They are also interested in Sheeta’s magical pendant. The family is composed of a bunch of guys and their pirate mother and father, kind of like the Fratelli Brothers from The Goonies (1985), where the mother is this old hag and the brothers are a bunch of bumbling idiots who follow moms’ rules. Mama Pirate is a character called Dola, a really tough old lady who fights and eats like a man but has the tender qualities of a mother. Cloris Leachman does a great job voicing this character in the English version of the film. The dynamics and dialog between the pirate family are hilarious! A true highlight of the film and here’s where I tell you that Castle in the Sky is one of Miyazaki ’s funniest movies ever because of these characters. At first they appear as villains, but they slowly win you over until by the end of the film they are these lovable characters that you wish you could hang out with.

Dola, the coolest old lady you'll ever meet! 

Castle in the Sky plays with many of the themes that Miyazaki normally addresses: environmentalist issues, a strong female lead, an anti-war message…but I find it so interesting that Miyazaki can address the same themes and still make a film that doesn’t feel repetitive. You don’t feel like you are watching the same movie all over again. What sets Castle in the Sky apart from other Miyazaki films is it’s amped up comedy and its sense of adventure. The first half of the film has a chase sequence that takes place on a train track, which is truly awesome. It felt like something you might see on an Indiana Jones film or something. Another unique element is the idea of this mystical flying city that only a select few people have ever seen. The city is this interesting mix of technology and nature, remnants of a long gone society. And yet another aspect of the film that sets it apart is the films villain, which in my opinion is one of the most evil villains on any Miyazaki film. The thing about villains in a Miyazaki film is that most of the time, they don’t come off as being all that evil. They are soft spoken and polite, hell, in general, you come off seeing a Miyazaki film and you feel like you’ve seen nothing but goodness and lightheartedness. But on Castle in the Sky, Muska, the films villain is a truly evil individual, a selfish person looking for nothing but personal gain; he was voiced by veteran voice actor and Jedi Master, Mark Hamill.

But, at the same time, Castle in the Sky has all of the elements that you’d expect from a Miyazaki film. You get to meet these characters that are so pure and good of heart, they feel as if they have nothing but goodness inside of them. Pazu and Sheeta (wonderfully voiced by Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek in the English version) are a boy and a girl respectively. Normally Miyazaki will have a female lead, but with this film, he went with both. Best thing is that Pazu and Sheeta develop such genuine care for one another; they have these tender scenes where they display such care and love, interesting part is that it’s not even on a romantic level. What they develop with one another is closer to true friendship. I love that about watching Miyazaki films, you just feel great after watching them. Even though bad things do happen in his films, most of the times you come off feeling as if you’ve just seen an explosion of love.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Jack L said...

Fantastic review, this made me want to see more of Miyazaki's work suddenly!
Of course I'd seen the big one such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke but I've been meaning to explore his earlier work as well, so I'll get my hands of this film and on Nausicaa.
I'm looking forward to it as i=he's a master film maker.

Franco Macabro said...

I think you will enjoy both films a whole lot Jack! I dont think their is such a thing as a bad Miyazaki film, but both of the ones you'll be watching? TOP NOTCH STUFF man! Glad you dug the reviews, and thanks for commenting.

LLJ said...

Miyazaki has two modes--quiet, low key films on one hand, and action adventure epics on the other. Many newer fans will come to know him more for action adventure epics because most of the stuff released in the west theatrical were his "big" films.

I was introduced to his quieter, more "mundane" films so I gravitate towards those. A lot of people considered Ponyo a "departure" from his epic films, and were a bit disappointed by it. I, on the other hand, was delighted to see him return to that mode of storytelling.

Franco Macabro said...

I recently had the opportunity to see Ponyo and fell in love with it, a truly magical film. It had something about it, but I'll get into that on my review for it which should be up sometime soon.

I like all modes Miyazaki goes into, his films are all gifts, love them all, still haven't seen one that I didn't like. I've yet to see his first animated feature ever: Castle of Cagliostro, need to get my hands on that one!

Thanks for commenting LLJ.

Jon Turner said...

It's hard for me to choose a favorite Miyazaki, but this is one of my top faves. Everything about it just really speaks to me: the music, the artwork, the story, the characters, the action/humor/suspense/adventure elements, etc.

And yeah, I've always enjoyed the dubs on Miyazaki's films; this is the most underrated of the English tracks—many hardcore fans have written off James and Anna's Pazu and Sheeta, saying that they're too mature and automatically make the film unwatchable, but I beg to differ. While both may be the least experienced of the cast, they still provide a lot of emotion and enthusiasm for their roles, which overshadowed the occasional weakness that I detected at times—Sheeta's sometimes inconsistent accent, Pazu's sometimes over-the-top voice cracks. I personally give both a B+-A-, but everyone else in the dub deserves an A+, especially Cloris, Mark, and the guys who play the pirates, th egeneral, the coal miners, Uncle Pom—those guys have excellent voice actors and ultimately make the dub very watchable. The Japanese version is interesting in its presentation of the film—a much more minimalistic soundtrack, for instance, and less dialogue— but I think both are excellent experiences in their own right.

Elwood Jones said...

Glad I'm not the only one who thought of the Fratteli's when they saw the sky Pirates.

I'm not sure what it is, but Mark Hamill really loves playing memorable villians from "The Joker" to "Cock knocker" he really is the go to guy for a memorable badguy, but no doubt its all the rage he's channeling from playing the purer than pure Luke Skywalker.

It's been awhile since I've seen this one, so will have to check it out again soon, especially as really want to revisit "Porco Rosso" again, whose sky pirate I found slightly more fun than these ones, especially with thier symbiotic relationship that they share with Rosso.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jon Turner: Sorry to take so long to reply! But yes, the english dubbing is quite enjoyable on this one, Cloris Leechman was my favorite of all. I did notice the inconsistencies in the accent with Sheeta's character, but its a minor mishap I guess. Thanks for commenting!

@Elwood Jones: Yeah, The Fratelli's came to mind immediately! I saw Porco Rosso a while back and enjoyed it. I thought it had a little bit of Indiana Jones in it.

Mark Hamill has made a career out doing voices for cartoons. Incredible how he's never managed to make as an actor aside from his participation in one of the most important film franchises ever. He's never really managed to escape Luke Skywalker. But he has managed to work with Miyazaki extensively! And with many other important animators and filmmakers, which is still cool.

Thanks for commenting!

TheSaffronFighter said...

Haha, I also thought of the Goonies while watching this film, most especially when I saw the pirates. The mother of the Brothers really reminded me of the pirate woman.

It's one of my favourite Ghibli films which I watched back in April


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