Feature-length productions like Castle in the Sky (1986) are a perfect example of hand-drawn animation done exactly right: it's colorful, imaginative, full of energy, and perfectly accessible from start to finish---obviously aimed at kids and young teenagers, but able to enjoyed by the whole family. Castle in the Sky also doubles as the first official production of Studio Ghibli, founded just one year earlier by the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (who serve as director and producer, respectively), and still stands tall as one of its most purely enjoyable adventures.
Studio Ghibli films almost always revolve around young children swept up in a fantastic world, and Castle in the Sky nails the formula down tight in a matter of minutes. Our two heroes are Sheeta and Pazu: one is a girl who literally floats down from the sky with the help of a mystical necklace, and the other is an energetic 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 life before Pazu found her, they're basically figuring things out as they go along. Hot on their trail are several groups interested in Sheeta and her necklace, including the mysterious Colonel Muska and a band of sky pirates led by the aggressive Captain Dola. As our two young heroes attempt to keep their distance from---or occasionally work with---these pursuers, they've also got to learn all they can about Sheeta's origin, her special necklace, and the abilities it grants her.
At just over two full hours in length, Castle in the Sky gets plenty of time to develop its world and the characters in (and above) it; Miyazaki's story never feels rushed or excessive, and the majority of its plentiful action scenes serve the story while carrying it forward. Younger audiences, even those weaned on Disney's more musically-driven films or Pixar's flashy productions, won't have very much trouble adjusting to the more layered, story-driven elements of Castle in the Sky or its kinetic, hand-drawn visuals. Composer Joe Hisashi's excellent score combines orchestral flourishes with an occasional dash of synthesizers, while an alternate version---more string-based with no electronics, and which also adds a few newly-commissioned cues to several scenes---was used for Disney's English dub with the director's blessing.
Originally released on DVD in 2003 by Disney (and again in 2010), Castle in the Sky received a Blu-ray upgrade from the studio just over five years ago. GKIDS' brand new Blu-ray edition arrives as part of a substantial Ghibli re-release wave after they acquired the distribution rights from Disney earlier this year. It aims to correct a few glaring problems with the Disney Blu-ray, but two drawbacks keep this disc from being what I might consider a definitive release.
Disney's 2014 Blu-ray featured a strong 1080p presentation sourced from a then-recent master---so, like GKIDS' other re-issues, I expected this new presentation to look pretty much the same. It almost does: color saturation is great, with crisp image detail and visible grain that ensures it hasn't been scrubbed with noise reduction. Black levels are deep, while the lack of compression artifacts and aliasing is also good news. But the problem here---and I'll be honest, it's kind of a big one---is telecine wobble, which is evident from start to finish and even more during scenes that aren't loaded with action (which, admittedly, are pretty few in this film). Each and every cut also wobbles vertically for a few frames, which I also spotted from several feet back on a smaller display. I'm not sure if I'd call this a deal-breaker or even worth a recall...but it's an obvious strike against an otherwise outstanding presentation, and that's unfortunate.
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Like the Disney disc, viewers can choose between the original Japanese 2.0 track or an English 5.1 dub (featuring the likes of James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman, Jim Cummings, and more, which has been included on just about every previous Region 1 release of Castle in the Sky)...but I've always been partial to the original, so I mainly focused on that track during the show. It's a great mix with crisp dialogue, a fairly deep sound stage, and the added bonus of Joe Hisaishi's original score; both score versions are great, but I just prefer the more subtle and sparse electronic-infused version. Speaking of which, an exclusive third option is available on this Blu-ray as well: the English dub with Hisaishi's original score. It's sadly limited to lossy Dolby Digital 5.1, but the choice is appreciated.
Unlike the previous DVDs and Blu-ray, optional subtitles are available as dubtitles (for the English versions) and a literal English translation of the Japanese track, which has been provided by Studio Ghibli and differs quite a bit at times; it's not nearly as wordy and features more "PG" language. The lack of a literal translation was one of my only gripes with Disney's disc (as well as improperly timed dubtitles, which have been fixed as well), so it's good to know that fans of the original language track finally have the right subtitles to match. An optional French dub and subtitles are also included.
GKIDS' static, silent menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover; a nice Booklet is also tucked inside, featuring short reprinted essays by producer Toshio Suzuki and director Hayao Miyazaki.
Two short but enjoyable vintage extras are new to this release, which was a nice surprise. The better of the two is a 1986 Promotional Video (12:39) featuring comments from Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Joe Hisaishi, and other members of the crew and creative team as they talk about the story development, music, and even show off some of early artwork and other goodies. Also here are Textless Opening and Closing Credits (4:45); the former cuts off abruptly for whatever reason...but I guess extras like these are here to showcase the beautiful artwork, not the music.
Aside from an introduction by John Lasseter, everything from Disney's 2014 Blu-ray has been carried over as well. 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).
Castle in the Sky, the first official production of Studio Ghibli, is now 31 years old but could've been released this decade. The film fires on all cylinders during much of its 126-minute running time: it's loaded with great characters, kinetic action scenes, suspense, drama, memorable music, and mystery that kids of all ages can enjoy. Highly influential and supremely entertaining, it's family adventure done right on an epic scale. GKIDS' new Blu-ray edition of Castle in the Sky corrects a few nagging problems with Disney's 2014 Blu-ray (fixed dubtitles, along with new literal subtitles), throws in a few nice bonuses (two short extras and even a third audio option, though it's not lossless) and, aside from one unfortunate problem with the 1080p transfer (see above), is easily the best home video version to date. The latter prevents me from giving it a higher rating, but Castle in the Sky is still firmly Recommended to fans and newcomers alike.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.