Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Oshram ) It’s always difficult to put a stamp on any film as being ‘the best,’ whether of all time, a certain genre, or what have you, but I believe a strong argument could be made that “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” is, in fact, the greatest animated film ever made. It is in my mind the masterwork of Hayao Miyazaki, the most talented of Japan’s animated directors, and the 1986 film best captures his strengths as a director, storyteller, and designer, as well as encapsulating all of his favorite underlying themes. The version I’m reviewing is the 2003 American dub (I know, sacrilege for a hard-core anime fan to not watch an anime in its native language); there is at least one other English language dub out there and I have it on VHS (I have no idea from what source), and that version is the single best dub I have ever encountered of any film. But I thought it better to concentrate on the version people could actually find, which is this one.

“Laputa” tells the story of a boy named Pazu (voiced by James Van Der Beek), who is growing up in a mining town when one day a young girl named Sheeta (Anna Paquin, “Darkness”) literally drops from the sky. It seems she is being pursued by a sinister government agent, Colonel Muska (voiced by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill), who is interested in the magical crystal that hangs around her neck. To keep things lively, there’s also a wickedly funny pirate gang after the same crystal; the gang is led by the aging but still boisterous Dola (Cloris Leachman).

The plot revolves around the crystal’s ability to reveal the location of the fabled flying city of Laputa, a potential treasure trove of scientific knowledge and hidden treasure. It’s all very much in keeping with a fairy-tale setting, but writer/director Hayao Miyazaki knows exactly how far to take the story. As a result, the plot is peppered with ‘gosh-wow’ moments and threaded with his customary morality and warnings about abusing the power of nature.

The design work on “Laputa”, nearly twenty years later, is still revolutionary. Flying machines of all sorts abound, the mechanics utterly impossible but so meticulously designed that you instantly accept them without hesitation. The world of “Laputa” is set somewhere around the start of the twentieth century, with telegraphs and ancient motorcars running alongside those wonderfully impossible flying machines. But it is the city of Laputa itself that is sheer brilliance in execution; Laputa is both the Garden of Eden and the Fire of Heaven, and in that juxtaposition lies its appeal, its power, and its danger.

Besides being a thoughtfully designed and beautifully rendered film, “Laputa” is blessed with a wonderful sense of cinematography. From sweeping flying shots, to high-speed chases on tiny one-man flyers, to ships submerging into the clouds as if they were water, “Laputa” displays a scope that most films — even with the magic of CGI today — can only daydream about. Though we only see a small fraction of this world, its simple elegance extends beyond the borders of the frame and we have no trouble believing it actually exists.

“Laputa” also contains one of my favorite, if not the most exciting, action sequences of all time. In it, a guardian robot that fell to Earth is accidentally reactivated and wreaks havoc on the fortress it is kept in, all the while trying to protect Sheeta. Meanwhile, Pazu and the pirates swoop in on their little flying machines to snatch her, literally, from the jaws of destruction. From the horrific sight of the robot incinerating the countryside to the exhilarating last-second rescue, the entire sequence is a masterpiece of timing and camera angles, and knowing exactly how far to take the audience.

“Laputa” also has an amazing score, thanks to composer Joe Hisaishi, who captures the wondrous beauty of this fantasy world, the dewy innocence, the exciting action, and the creepy otherworldliness of the flying city and its bizarre robot guardians. Though Hisaishi re-recorded the soundtrack for this DVD release (which in my opinion is not an improvement over his original score), adding pieces here and there, the score matches the visuals onscreen perfectly, creating a rare total union of sound and vision.

Cloris Leachman is spot on as Dola, the fiery old pirate woman, Paquin does a good job as Sheeta, and Mark Hamill is more than talented enough to do Muska (although I liked the other English dub of Muska a little more). But much of the film rests on Pazu’s shoulders, and Van Der Beek is wonderful in the voice role. Although watching a dubbed anime is considered grounds for excommunication among the otaku faithful, and as much as I love this film, I don’t think you’re sacrificing a great deal by watching this Anglicized version of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 masterpiece.

“Laputa” boasts an opening introduction by John Lassiter of Pixar, and my suspicion is that he, like so many others, simply loves this film so much that they tried very hard to ensure its high quality. Miyazaki has had success in America in recent years with “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke” (one of his few films I didn’t care for), but to me “Laputa” is still his crowning achievement (though “My Neighbor Totoro” is probably a really close second). Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s later works will almost certainly enjoy this earlier effort, which is an example of the master at the top of his form and hitting on every cylinder.

Hayao Miyazaki (director) / Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
CAST: James Van Der Beek …. Pazu
Anna Paquin …. Sheeta
Cloris Leachman …. Dola
Mark Hamill …. Col. Muska

Buy Laputa: Castle in the Sky on DVD