A girl with a magic necklace descends from the sky into the arms of an engineering apprentice, radiating with light as the aura of the jewel dangling from her neck suspends her in air until an opportune moment. Thus starts Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, a poetic voyage through hovering castles, pirates, a country's governmental search for war knowledge and the loyalty between friends, created by one of animated storytelling's masters. Harking to The Castle of Cagliostro and his first true piece of artwork, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki brings together his delicate yet bold eye for fantasy and charm of characters into something that's unforgettably powerful.
Its power resonates in the striking imagery of Laputa, a mythical castle hidden in the sky that's rumored to hold majesty in its architecture and military secrets in its depths. The legend, tossed around by villagers and government officials alike, is mostly a stream of vague fables that hold about as much concrete information as talk about a theological utopia. Miyazaki knows that it's the central feature to the story, the remnants of an ancient civilization that we're aching to see in the clouds, and he makes us wait in anticipation while he deliberately constructs the rapport between Sheeta, the girl who clearly has a link to the enchanted location, and Pazu, the boy who's going to get her there.
Resemblances to Miyazaki's first works can be seen in character construction early in Castle in the Sky, using the lively facial mannerisms of The Castle of Cagliostro for its sillier characters, namely the air pirates, and the more stoic demeanor of Nausicaa to get across seriousness in the prevalent antagonists. The two strike a poise between stone-faced and playful tones that involves us, which buzzes in circles around the budding relationship between the two focal children. This marks Miyazaki's first concentrated effort in looking through the eyes of youth, a theme prevalent throughout his career; Pazu and Sheeta's relationship leans on a chivalric tenderness, unashamed but charmingly duplicated from the fairytale knight / princess formula. Pazu's impassioned cries for "SHEE-TA" during intense sequences rarely fall short in capturing his determination -- and our concentration.
In time for our emotion bond to cudgel with Pazu and Sheeta, Castle in the Sky jolts forward into a breathtaking journey through the skies of Miyazaki's beautiful illustrated world. He eschews helicopters and planes for flying ships and dragonfly-like flying devices, which add dashes of fanciful eye-candy that transport us into this world much different from ours. Yet they retain a craftsmanship that's mechanically similar to ships and hovercrafts of our own aesthetic, as well as glancing towards space operas of the '70s and early '80s for sparks of influence. Somehow, between a story about a magical castle floating in the sky, massive aeronautical vehicles, and radiant magic, Miyazaki keeps it grounded in a sense of belief that complements the fantasy impeccably. It's in a different world, a different time with different technology, but there's something about it that's both surprising yet intuitively earthen.
He gives us time, a leg-stretching 124 minutes, for us to grow doubly comfortable with the airborne atmosphere and the moving parts around his world, all through a shrewdly paced cat-and-mouse chase between the government, helmed by mixed-motive mastermind Muska, and the duo of Sheeta and Pazu. Something Miyazaki realizes is the concept of giving breaks from the action to emphasize the actual narrative at-play underneath its momentum, allowing a tender bond between the lead characters to build and for respectful, intriguingly parental notions to construct between Sheeta and the pirate's leader, Dola. Castle in the Sky isn't rocket science with its emotional fabric and its ideas, but it does carry quite a few themes about understanding both the beneficiary and destructive sides of power, the futility of war, and the true power of belief in people -- and that's what fills the gaps in between awe-striking flight sequences through lightning storms and amid explosive attacks.
Eventually, once we've grown accustomed to the outlying storytelling and radiating yet winded hope within the two youngsters, we do arrive at this Gulliver's Travels-inspired destination that's been anticipated for the entirety of Castle in the Sky -- and it's amazing, but not just for its beauty. First glance on the Grecian / Macedonian architecture with age-defining foliage spurting at all ends does leave you a bit speechless, but the thematic ideas present in its existence are what really power the majesty of our characters' arrival forward. Vindicated hope in their eyes leads to a scramble to discover its secrets before evil minds do the same, almost playing with our grasp on fantastical ruins like we're exploring forts as children. With minimal sound, aside from Joe Hisaishi's grand score and graceful nature effects (as well as the electronic pitter-patter of robot feet), their exploration of the environment is chillingly beautiful.
Castle in the Sky's steadily mounting themes explode into a satisfying collage of technological corruption, poeticism, royal deceit, ancient principle and sumptuous artistry, erupting into a billowing climax. It's also an onslaught of expressive scope done in the director's grand fashion, with a level of blunted allegory around the castle's discovery that's perhaps a bit tamer than the concepts of his subsequent works. That's because his real aim here is to beguile, and Miyazaki certainly does; he provokes a Shakespearean twist ending and gives us a thrilling, romantic quest in Pazu's eyes -- though his affection might make him a little more invincible and unblemished in his crusade than we're allowed to believe -- that achieves a breathless state with its action. That's the balance stricken, between wonderment for our eyes and subtly transfixing thought underneath, which Miyazaki shapes with the delight only his hand could mold.
Disney have pieced together this re-released package of Castle in the Sky in a polished two-disc presentation, carrying new menus and different cover artwork. A cardboard slipcase adorns the outside of the DVD, with raised lettering on the front. A chapter listing, however, has not been included, so it might be worthwhile to hold onto those leaflets if you have the previous editions in your possession.
Video and Audio:
Common sense would leave one to believe that Disney would just slap a new cover, cardboard slipcase, and disc artwork over the previous release of Castle in the Sky to coincide with the release of Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, but that's not exactly the case -- and that's a good thing. Disney's previous release of this film was marred with edge enhancement issues and mosquito noise to rather harsh degrees, along with being pretty widely windowboxed. Now, this 1.85:1 widescreen image, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, doesn't fix those problems completely; however, the halos and color solidity have been greatly improved. Bear in mind that the artwork for Castle in the Sky is well over twenty years senior to that of Ponyo, so the style and overall breadth of the gorgeous '80s-era animation won't look quite the same.
Note: Click each image for larger screen capture.
First, the sharpness of the image has been greatly controlled, lifting the heavy, over-contrasted look of the original release to make way for a much more natural disposition -- one that sports edges that aren't nearly as hideous as the previous release. This makes for less harsh, lighter black strokes around many of the image's elements, but it's to the degree of improving the delicateness of the drawings. Colors are also slightly warmer and more vibrant, seen in color and hair tones in the close-ups and in many of the airborne shots. On top of that, the image has also had the large black frame removed from around it and, on top of that, the slight edge halo on the sides and the bottom of the image have been controlled. There are a few caveats; the image has been slightly cropped on the top and left-hand side in the process, and the edge halos / mosquito noise can still be seen. However, Castle in the Sky has certainly seen an improvement here that merits a look-see at its new rendering.
Audio is available in a 5.1 English Dolby Digital and the preferred original 2.0 Japanese track. The English dub carries a wider sound mix and the star-studded vocal talents -- many woefully miscast -- of James Van Der Beek as Pazu, Anna Paquin as Sheeta, and Mark Hamill as Muska, but the Japanese track sounds properly balanced and as clear as one could expect of the sound design. Either way, your ears are more drawn to the boisterous sound effects and Joe Hisaishi's incredible music (the same across both sound mixes), which pour through great in the original track. These elements do receive a boost in the 5.1 option, but the grating vocal dubbing clearly steers attention away from that. Subtitles, which are mostly the dubbed text that add context in bits and pieces, are available in English and French and sit rather high on the image itself.
The Introduction with John Lasseter has been preserved at the beginning of the film on Disc One, while the full-length Storyboard Animation version of the film -- complete with both English and Japanese audio -- has been carried over onto Disc Two. Also available is the rather bland Behind the Microphone (4:13, 4x3) piece that meanders about the English-speaking cast voicing the film. It's kind of awkward to see young Dawson (Van Der Beek) obnoxiously voicing Pazu, but seeing Mark Hamill find another vocal role is fun to see.
The World of Ghibli portion of the supplements breaks off into two sections: Behind the Studio and Enter the Lands which could just about be summed up as being "adults" and kids". Enter the Lands opens up an animated interface in the shape of an island (click for large image) where the user can select points on a map. Each point contains child-friendly rudimentary facts about most of the characters for each film featured, which are: Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Ponyo. What's sad to see is that there are several other points on the map featuring characters from four other Miyazaki creations -- Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart, and My Neighbors the Yamadas -- that are not selectable. Perhaps Disney is awaiting the right moment to release those in new editions or, maybe, in high-definition? Still, seeing them there is a bit of a tease.
Behind the Studio burrows a bit deeper into the construction of Castle in the Sky, segmented into two-to-three (2-3) minute snippets that discuss the conceptualization and history behind this animated masterwork. Through interview time, Hayao Miyazaki discusses the film's reflection of "How Green Was My Valley" in The World of Laputa (2:20), his life-long desire to create a high-flying science-fiction adventure in Creating Castle in the Sky (3:42), and his desire to create animated pictures with "real" children in Character Sketches (2:41). Producer Toshio Suzuki takes some time to wax poetic a bit about Miyazaki in Producer's Perspective: Meeting Miyazaki (3:41).
Also available are a general piece on Miyazaki's composer Joe Hisaishi called Scoring Miyazaki (7:19), and a few Japanese Trailers (4:11) for Castle in the Sky. Finally, three lengthy Previews for other Miyazaki films released at the same time -- Ponyo (3:58), Kiki's Delivery Service (2:28), and My Neighbor Totoro (3:00).
Every time I get the chance to see Castle in the Sky, it grows on me more and more. Hayao Miyazaki's artistry impresses each time with its construction of mechanical wonders and suspenseful momentum, and the lengthy conclusion to it all -- a poetic and symbolic climax -- never ceases to leave me awe-struck with its epic scale. It's a fantastical narrative, chock full of sweeping whimsy and excellent characters that's still as potent as its creation in 1986. Disney has made subtle but noticeable tailoring to the way the film looks for this presentation, as well as including a new slate of blurbs about Miyazaki and the film itself that are worth the time. The subtle upgrades, and the quality of this great piece of animation, make this one Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site