I miss hand-drawn animated films. The medium is far from dead, but the continued dominance of CGI---bolstered by the cult of 3-D---isn't about to fade anytime soon. Simply put, the storybook quality of capable hand-drawn animation almost always lends a more expressively human touch to the world it's illustrating. Feature-length productions like Castle in the Sky (1986) are a perfect example of hand-drawn animation done exactly right: it's colorful, imaginative and perfectly accessible from start to finish. Castle in the Sky also doubles as the first production of Studio Ghibli, founded just one year earlier by the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (who serve as director and producer, respectively).
Studio Ghibli films almost always revolve around children swept up in a fastastic world, and Castle in the Sky nails the formula down tight. Our two heroes are Sheeta and Pazu: one is a mysterious young girl with a mystical necklace, and the other is an energetic young boy who dreams of Laputa, a floating city that his late father discovered. Both children are orphans---and since the former has little recollection of her life before Pazu found her, they're basically figuring things out as they go along. Hot on their trail are several folks interested in Sheeta (more specifically, her necklace), including the mysterious Colonel Muska and a band of sky-pirates led by Captain Dola. As our heroes attempt to keep their distance from these pursuers, they've also got to figure out more about Sheeta's past, which includes her homeland, her special necklace and the abilities it gives her. From beginning to end, it's quite a wild ride.
At just over two hours in length, Castle in the Sky gets plenty of time to develop its world and the characters in (and above) it; thankfully enough, our story never feels rushed or excessive. Younger audiences, even those weaned on Disney or Pixar's more musical-driven films, won't have very much trouble adjusting to the more layered, story-driven elements of Castle in the Sky or its less flashy visuals. Composer Joe Hisashi's excellent score combines orchestral flourishes with an occasional dash of synthesizers, although Disney commissioned a new score in 2003 for Castle in the Sky's Region 1 DVD debut. Thankfully enough, Hisashi's original score was reinstated on DVD just a few short years ago, which appears here on all included audio tracks instead of the 2003 version. Although having both would've been neat, I'm glad the original is here to stay. Confusing though, to say the least.
Making its Region "A" debut as a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack from Disney, Castle in the Sky arrives just two years after a Special Edition DVD that improved upon the first DVD release from earlier in the decade. Essentially, we're blessed with a near-perect effort in the visual department and the audio gets a subtle boost, but those expecting a "Platinum Edition" platter of bonus features may walk away disappointed. Even so, Castle in the Sky is a strong enough family film to stand on its own two feet, whether you've seen it a dozen times or this is your first viewing. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Castle in the Sky looks phenomenal from start to finish. It's taken from the same master as 2010's Special Edition DVD, but the bump to HD is definitely evident. Contrast and black levels are rock solid, a natural layer of film grain has been preserved and the colors are rich and vibrant. Most importantly, digital imperfections are virtually absent, including edge enhancement and compression artifacts. Make no mistake about it: Castle in the Sky isn't a visual tour de force at every turn, but animation purists should appreciate this quality effort.
NOTE: The above screen captures are from the included DVD and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
The audio doesn't reach the same heights, but it's more of a source material issue than anything else. Unfortunately, the default track is a DTS-HD 5.1 English dub that's roughly 10 years old; featuring the likes of James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, it's a mostly uninspired effort that even falls short of the original English dub from older VHS releases. Sure, the voices are crisply recorded and fit in slightly better with the characters' surroundings, but there's also additional crowd noise and other bits of dialogue that undercut the original script. Surround channels are given little to do, outside of occasional music cues or subtle ambient touches. Also avaible is a lossy 2.0 French dub, for those keeping score at home.
Luckily, the third and final option is better: we get the original Japanese track in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio. Given the source material's technical limitations, this is a relatively strong audio track and boasts solid channel separation. Unfortunately, the only accompanying subtitles are fit to match the English dub...but even within those constraints, the subtitle timing is occasionally off during both main options. It's a minor annoyance on several occasions, but certainly not a deal-breaker in this reviewer's opinion.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the plain-wrap menu designs are lightly animated and easy to navigate. This 124-minute film has been divided into just 12 chapters, no obvious layer changes were detected and the main menu is prefaced by a handful of skippable trailers, logos and advertisements. This two-disc release is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase and includes one Disney Movie Rewards insert and a matching slipcover.
Not much, and most everything has been recycled from 2010's Special Edition DVD
and earlier releases. These extras include a feature-length Japanese Storyboard Reel
, a handful of Featurettes
(including the Americanized "Behind the Microphone", "The World of Laputa", "Creating Castle in the Sky
", "Character Sketches", "Meeting Miyazaki" and "Scoring Miyazaki", 2-7 minutes each) and a handful of interesting Japanese Trailers & Teasers
(4:10). There's also an optional Introduction
from Pixar head honcho John Lasseter (0:50), just in case viewers aren't sure if the movie they're about to watch is any good.
Oddly enough, the interactive "World of Ghibli" character feature is absent from this release, which makes the lack of any new bonus material all the more disappointing. All of these extras are presented in upconverted standard definition (1080i max) and include optional English SDH captions when applicable.
Studio Ghibli's Castle in the Sky is one of the best animated films of the 1980s, bursting at the seams with mystery, imagination, humor and terrific characters. Disney's Combo Pack features a stellar visual presentation as expected, but the lack of new bonus features (not to mention the unfortunate use of "dubtitles") definitely brings it down a notch. Even so, this is a great family film worth owning---so if you're interesting in experiencing Castle in the Sky in high def, now's your chance. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off and writing stuff in third person.