I was going to call this a review, but considering that it’s a film from the 80’s universally considered a classic it would sort of be like writing a “review” of “Casablanca”. It’s obviously not on quite that level (though certain Miyazaki films might be – if you haven’t seen “Spirited Away”, do so right now), but you get the idea. Hayao Miyazaki is a director I heard praised so much by critics and friends I trusted that I figured I might as well try him out eventually. So I went with “Spirited Away”, his 2002 Oscar winner and widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
So was THAT particular film as good as promised?
In one word: Yes.
In two words: HELL, yes.
“Spirited Away” is what “Alice in Wonderland” should have been, adding the plot and character development “Alice” always lacked. This review isn’t for that film (though one will probably be forthcoming), so in lieu of a full explanation of what made it so great I’ll say that if you haven’t seen it…see it. Not “If you like anime”. Not “If you’re okay watching a children’s movie”. If you like films at all, see “Spirited Away”.
Okay. That out of the way, what about “Castle in the Sky”?
“Castle in the Sky” was the first film released under the acclaimed Studio Ghibli banner (“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, also considered a masterpiece, was actually NOT an official Ghibli film as many think – it was more like a test case to see if the production team could make enough money to justify a studio), and the third film by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki.
At this point, Miyazaki was already fairly well known in Japan. He was a popular manga writer and a writer/artist for several different animes. His first feature film, a Lupin III piece titled “The Castle of Cagliostro”, received mixed reviews by Lupin III fans but in later years has become widely recognized as a classic thanks to its stunning visuals and compelling action setpieces – two aspects of Miyazaki’s work that are used to full effect in “Castle in the Sky”.
Miyazaki’s second feature film, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, is the first film that made people sit up and realize what an exceptional talent they had on their hands. “Nausicaa”, like several of Miyazaki’s works, is widely considered one of the greatest animated films ever made, known – as Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films always are – for its striking visuals and fascinatingly original story. The success of the film spawned the creation of the also-legendary Studio Ghibli, an animation studio whose unbroken string of successes was at one time rivaled by only classic Disney and Pixar (all three have since diminished somewhat, alas).
So how to top that?
By creating one of the best adventure films ever made (“best ever made” is a phrase you get used to hearing with Miyazaki).
“Castle in the Sky” was both intensely familiar and like nothing I’d ever seen before. The movie feels sort of like a children’s “Indiana Jones”. The action scenes are absolutely stellar; there is a chase scene aboard a train early on in the movie that is possibly the best I’ve ever seen, and things only get crazier from there.
The plot: A young girl – somewhere between 12 and 14 – named Sheeta has been captured by the army, lead by the villainous Colonel Muska (in the English dub a wonderfully hammy Mark Hamill), who are holding her aboard their giant airship, Goliath. A family of sky pirates lead by their matriarch, Captain Dola (an ugly old crone played by a perfectly cast Chloris Leachman), attack Goliath in an attempt to kidnap Sheeta themselves; the distraction gives Sheeta a chance to escape. She slips from the airship and goes tumbling towards the earth….
…Right into the arms of Pazu, an adventurous and outgoing young orphan boy about the same age as Sheeta. For Sheeta did not fall the whole way; the crystal she carries around her neck apparently has magical powers, and it allowed Sheeta to float safely down into Pazu’s arms (who immediately almost drops her).
From there, events move at a breakneck pace, as it becomes clear that both the pirates and the army haven’t given up on finding Sheeta and stealing her crystal. Together, Pazu and Sheeta try to escape from the pirates, the army, and maybe – with luck – perhaps find Laputa, the City in the Sky of the title and the source of Sheeta’s crystal, themselves.
The movie has a sort of optimism and enthusiasm for life I don’t think I’ve ever seen replicated before. When Pazu meets Sheeta, there’s no hesitation whatsoever – he believes her story immediately and designates himself her protector with absolutely no strings attached and no regard for his own life. The townspeople, when they realize Pazu and Sheeta are on the run, do their best to aid him – none think for a second to doubt his story or convince him to go to the police. Later, at the end of the aforementioned train scene, the army shows up. At first, Pazu and the train conductor are pleased until they see Sheeta’s terrified reaction – and then the army is an enemy. No doubt, no hesitation, no fear of reprisal.
And the amazing thing is that this is all so effortless. No attempt is made to convince you that people would act like this – it’s just assumed. At one point in the story, before a rescue attempt, Pazu yells “Sheeta means everything to me!” To be clear, Pazu met Sheeta perhaps two days ago – and the wonderful thing about this moment is that you believe him. The scene could come off as weird or creepy, but instead it’s sweet and sincere, because Miyazaki has sold you that this is the sort of world, and Pazu is the sort of person, where a relationship forged with a stranger could inspire such love and devotion.
As good as the action scenes are – and they really are remarkable – the relationship between Pazu and Sheeta is perhaps the best part of the film. There’s never one big romantic gesture – never the Big Damn Kiss – but it’s tons of little things throughout the movie that all add up to one of the best movie romances I’ve ever seen. And between twelve year olds!
If there is one moment that I had to pick to convince somebody that “Castle in the Sky” is worth watching, it would be this one:
Pazu and Sheeta have just landed in Laputa for the first time, having barely survived a horrible storm. They are alone, on top of a sort of outcropping and tied together (as a safety precaution from the flight – if one fell out, the other can hold onto them).
They decide to go and look down at Laputa for the first time, but Sheeta is unable to undo the knot binding them. So instead of waiting, Pazu simply picks her up and carries her over to the edge of the outcropping. With Sheeta in his arms, they stare in awe at the City in the Sky for the first time, a breathtakingly gorgeous view of a crumbling castle overtaken by nature, clouds drifting through the scene almost like ghosts. The two take a moment to simply stare, as Joe Hisaishi’s incredible score plays in the background
And that’s Miyazaki in a nutshell. It’s a small act of love transforming an already visually stunning scene into something quietly transcendent.
And that, my friends, is the very definition of superversive.