Castle in the Sky (1986)
If Pippi Longstocking decided to ditch the high seas and take her piracy skyward, she might have ended up very much like Captain Dola in Hayao Miyazaki’s rousing airborne adventure Castle in the Sky (1986). The tough-talking, ruthless, but ultimately mushy-centered ginger runs a tight ship, literally, as she barks orders at her various sons and partner while they search the heavens for fortune and glory. With her huge pigtails and take-no-prisoners attitude, she’s most definitely the one in charge. Pippi was always up for a swashbuckling adventure, and boy, does Miyazaki bring it with this one.
As far as controversy goes, Miyazaki rarely courted any of the sort, at least until his (previously) final film, The Wind Rises (2013). Up until that point and even today, he breathes the rarified air of being one of the greatest animation filmmakers of all time. But we all make mistakes, and one can’t help but feel bad for him when he was informed that Laputa, the seemingly meaningless name he lifted from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” to name his floating island/city could be translated in Spanish to “the whore.” For someone whose work, though sometimes violent and frightening, is often gentle and heartfelt, it must have been an embarrassing blow. No worries, of course, since the translation was simply changed for a Spanish-language release, but still, it’s pretty funny.
Castle in the Sky allows the veteran director to indulge in one his favorite obsessions: flight. He often acknowledges the vastness of the open sky and frames many introductory aerial shots of airships looking tiny against gigantic clouds. Whether intentionally or not, the notion of steampunk certainly has some very deep roots here, as various vehicles and contraptions whir and hiss throughout the film. A zeppelin-like pleasure cruise floats along peacefully, but that solitude is broken as a pirate ship bearing a skull closes in on the vessel. Dragonfly-style flying apparatuses zoom down and it’s clear this crew is after one person. A young girl named Sheeta stares wistfully out the porthole, waving off food. As chaos erupts and the pirates make their way through the affluent guests on board, Sheeta appears to have bodyguards in the form of sunglass-wearing toughs out of the 1940’s. Unexpectedly, she picks up a bottle and smashes it over one’s head and tries to make an escape by hanging outside of the flying ship. She loses her grip and falls. Captain Dola yells something about a crystal. As Sheeta falls out of the sky, a necklace she wears with a curious bauble glows. She passes out, and the crystal halts her fall, gently lowering her downward.
In a small mining town called Slag Ravine, a young boy named Pazu grabs a piping hot canister of meatballs to bring back to his boss, a huge miner named Mr. Duffi. As he heads back to the mine, he sees Sheeta slowly floating through the sky, her crystal acting as a beacon. He catches her just before she drops into the mine, and there’s an amusing visual gag where her weight returns and he can barely hang on. His co-workers aren’t interested in some random girl falling out of the sky. Just silver...and possibly tin. He’s a kind and energetic young man, so he takes her home and puts her to bed.
While Sheeta continues to sleep, Pazu climbs onto the roof of his tiny home, where he releases some doves and sounds his trumpet, giving the great composer Joe Hisaishi the opportunity for some soaring melodies. After Sheeta awakens, she doesn’t remember anything about the necklace saving her, even after a disastrous test from Pazu, where he puts it on and crashes through the roof. He’s pretty adorable and surprisingly inventive. He shows her a flying contraption he’s working on and lets her in on his plan to find the mythical floating island of Laputa. A picture of a floating city, partially obscured by clouds, was taken by his father and hangs in his work room. No one believes in the existence of Laputa, but he’s determined nonetheless.
The pirates show up, dressed in white ice cream suits, and Pazu tries to pass Sheeta off as a boy. She loses her hat and the jig is up. A fight breaks out between the miners and the pirates. One of the pirates goads the other, “Make your shirt explode,” ostensibly by flexing his muscles, which he does. Mr. Duffi does the same, and this seems like the first real entertainment this Welsh-inspired mining town has seen in years. It’s like the ending of The Quiet Man (1952): a genuine brawl. Pazu and Sheeta hitch a ride with a friendly train conductor while Captain Dola and her crew toss a real-live WWII-style grenade to stave off the crowd and chase the kids on the tracks with their car. In an action-packed sequence which rarely lets up, they try to evade their captors before running into more problems: an army tank headed by Colonel Muska, seen earlier on the airship that was carrying Sheeta. They fall from the train tracks and the crystal activates to save them. They’re dropped into an abandoned mine shaft.
Incredibly, Pazu still has a delicious toast and egg breakfast in his bag, which somehow has maintained its yolk stability. Sheeta comments on the magical abilities of his bag. Perhaps it’s a Birkin bag? They come upon an old miner named Uncle Pom, who thinks they’re goblins before getting his head together. Miyazaki has often explored the mysterious wonders of nature and here he indulges in a light display. Pom explains that if you’re quiet, the Earth will speak to you. Snuffing out his lantern, the mine lights up as if they’re in outer space, and Sheeta’s crystal glows as well. Uncle Pom tells her it’s made of pure aetherium, a material used by the people of Laputa to maintain flight. He warns her that the crystal could be very dangerous in the wrong hands.
Emerging from the caves, they’re captured by troops led by Muska and General Moura. While Pazu is held in a dungeon-like tower, Sheeta is lavished with dresses as Muska tries to sweet-talk her. He reveals that her real name is that of a royal lineage which ruled Laputa for hundreds of years. Leading her into a dark room, Muska shows her the awesome remains of a robotic creature that fell out of the sky some years ago. He believes she holds the key to finding the floating island so he can harness its obviously advanced technology. Forced to abandon Pazu for his own safety, Sheeta tells him to leave, with Muska tossing him a few coins for his trouble. He wanders home, where he’s greeted by the pirates, who are ravenously chowing down on a feast of meat and beer.
As Withnail stated: “I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.” Sheeta pretty much does the same, then absent-mindedly mutters a supposed spell her grandmother taught her. BOOM! The crystal shoots a beam across the sky and the power-hungry Muska realizes it’s the path to Laputa. The only downside to the crystal’s activation is that it also wakes up the robot, who has a plethora of fantastic abilities. Not only is it practically indestructible, it can fly and has a powerful eye beam. The military’s weapons are useless against it, even when they employ a giant mortar shell. It begins to follow Sheeta, who flees, being unaware that it’s her protector as she is a member of the Laputa royal family.
The pirates, who only want Sheeta so they can plunder the treasures of Laputa, shoot through the air with incredible speed, allowing Pazu to tag along as bait for Sheeta. They see the fortress from afar, burning brightly against the night sky thanks to the robot’s destructive beams. It’s finally brought down in a sad moment, as it somewhat resembles the Iron Giant. Sheeta loses the crystal and Captain Dola snatches her up. Muska, in a nice attention to detail, cautiously taps the crystal, having been zapped earlier by it. Although it still emits light, he can use it to guide his way.
Pazu convinces Dola to let him and Sheeta join their crew and the pirates are overjoyed to have new members who will do their dirty work. While Sheeta prepares their meals, an acceptable but slightly sexist choice, Pazu uses his mechanical expertise to work on the ship, named the Tiger Moth, alongside a Kamaji-looking engineer. The crew is smitten with Sheeta and dote on her, doing most of her cleaning and loving her cooking.
The Tiger Moth is able to catch up with Muska’s massive airstroyer, Goliath, and Pazu and Sheeta hop in the crow’s nest, which can be converted into a kite. A hurricane cloud looms close, but Pazu believes Laputa is within those clouds. After the kite breaks free from the pirate ship, they float through the darkness, only lit by psychedelic lightning bolts which seem to be grasping for them.
They crash onto a flowery surface. Looking around, they’ve arrived in Laputa. It’s a magical place, though weather-beaten and deserted. It’s obviously very old and crumbling, practically in ruin. Above them looms a giant tree, whose roots snake through the depths of the island. Another robot bearing the Laputa emblem approaches and apparently looks after the grounds, having moved their kite off of a birds’ nest full of eggs. In a sequence not dissimilar to the train scene in Spirited Away (2001), the film slows down to allow the majesty of what the two are seeing to take over. It’s a quiet and mysterious exploration leading to their discovery of a grave stone by the tree, where the mummified remains of long dormant robots lean against it.
Hearing commotion, they find, to their horror, that Muska and Mouro have reached Laputa and the pillaging has begun. Dola and her crew have been captured and the government’s lust for greed is evident as they gather piles of jewels and gold. Muska allows the riches to distract the troops and he makes his way to the lower level, where an invisible entrance is revealed using the crystal. Pazu and Sheeta are separated and a bullet even grazes Pazu’s face as he tries to evade their gunfire.
In one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, Muska has a secret of his own. He too is a member of the Laputa royal family. Only members of royal lineage can gain access to the throne room, where a massive, diamond-shaped piece of aetherium floats inside a sea of roots and vegetation, keeping the island afloat. Muska indicates that the destruction of many civilizations can be traced back to the awesome power of Laputa’s superior weaponry over the last 700 years. He has no further use for General Moura or his toy soldiers, so he activates the remaining robots to destroy Goliath and allows the troops to fall to their deaths by opening the bay doors located at the bottom of the island’s structure. He demonstrates the deadly energy beam, firing it into the ocean and causing a nuclear bomb-style mushroom cloud. While Muska describes his plan to take his rightful place as king of Laputa, Sheeta argues that a king must have compassion and love. This was the reason Laputa was abandoned because people weren’t meant to live in the clouds.
Sheeta is able to get the crystal back and reunites with Pazu. Muska gives them the choice of dying or returning the crystal to him. Pazu shares a moment with Sheeta, and they say the one-word Spell of Destruction, which seems a bit dangerous to be just one word, but it works. The structure begins to collapse all around them and Muska is blinded, then falls to his death. Sheeta and Paz reunite with the pirates, who’ve absconded with their booty, and Laputa floats away. The credits roll over the massive island, which appears to be in orbit above the Earth as we see planets far off in the distance.
Castle in the Sky is a rousing adventure with several bravura action set pieces. The explosions and chase scenes pack a powerful punch while the message of harmony in nature never feels preachy or an afterthought on Captain Planet, although I do still love Captain Planet. I wasn’t expecting the pirates to become allies, so that was a pleasant surprise. Although they were bumbling, their presence still represented a palpable danger and the government’s more enigmatic motivations made them seem like the lesser of two evils.
As this was yet another chapter in the introduction and education of my daughter to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, we watched the film with the Disney English dub. James Van Der Beek is quite charming as Pazu, full of vim and vigor. The most bizarre and flat performance belongs to Oscar winner Anna Paquin’s Sheeta, who waffles between her regular speaking voice and a baffling, amateurish accent of unknown origin. Much better are the supporting characters. Mark Hamill will forever be linked to Star Wars, but his greatest gifts lay in the world of voice acting. Of course, his Joker is iconic, and his David Hyde Pierce-inspired performance as Muska strikes an excellent tone of snide malevolence. Oscar winner Cloris Leachman gives a sense of humor and fierce determination to Captain Dola, and her impressive crew includes Tony winner Mandy Patinkin, the divisive Andy Dick, and most wonderfully, Michael McShane, well-known as the hypnotist from Office Space, but I like to think of him as the best song ‘n dance man on the original incarnation of Whose Line is it Anyway?. Richard Dysart, who I guess can still do voice over despite having his arms bitten off in The Thing (1982) voices Uncle Pom with a fine wisdom, and finally, Jim Cummings gives his famous Disney ‘Pete’ voice to General Moura. It’s a little distracting to hear Pete’s voice coming out of this squat general. I kept expecting Goofy to show up, but no matter.
Is the film a bit on the long side? Yes. I admit, I didn’t find it boring, but the extended bonding in the pirate ship wore a bit thin. That said, it’s a glorious fantasy-adventure film of extraordinary originality and why would I ever complain about having too much of a good thing?