December 25, 2007

Castle in the Sky

Castle in the Sky is a visually dazzling though somewhat less emotionally rewarding transitional work between the first and third installments of what could be called Hayao Miyazaki's "flying arc." As with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1986), the story turns upon the quest for the technology of a vanished civilization, the threat of environmental catastrophe it could unleash upon the world, and fate of the young girl who holds the key to both.

And like Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Miyazaki creates an alternate-history Edwardian Europe as a backdrop, replete with Dickensian villages emerging from a medieval past into the sunlight of a modern era, its skies crowded with whirling, chattering, steaming Rube Goldberg-powered dirigibles and autogyros. It's as if Miyazaki was determined to commit to celluloid every Popular Mechanics cover illustration published between 1900 and 1950.

The cautionary tale that Castle in the Sky tells--of power corrupting absolutely--lends it a far darker tone than Kiki's Delivery Service. Although the violence is less explicit than in Nausicaa (the more brutal consequences occur mostly off-screen), the abrupt shifts from pratfalls to people dying en masse is disconcerting. This dramatic imbalance extends to the conflict between Sheeta (an obvious counterpart to Nausicaa) and the evil, conspiring Muska. Compared to other Miyazaki villains--the corrupt monk Jigo in Princess Mononoke, General Kushana in Nausicaa--bad guy Muska is all black hat and not much else.

The best parts of the movie feature the sky pirate Dora and her four bungling sons. Both as comic relief and even in terms of character design, the not-so-dastardly-after-all quintet hearkens back to Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli work directing Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Except that Lupin III is a slapstick adventure series. I don't sense that was Miyazaki's intention in this case. The result is that a mixed message lacking the ideological consistency of Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke.

Yet it holds up remarkably well on subsequent viewings, and visually is a wonder to behold. The intricate design of the floating city, the details of the aircraft, and the daredevil flying sequences are flat-out breathtaking. Simply as a showcase for the amazing span of Miyazaki's creative genius, Castle in the Sky should not be missed.

Disney again does an outstanding job with the English dub. The leads are handled competently, though Anna Paquin as Sheeta acquires an English accent a third of the way through, loses it, gets it back in fits and starts. Cloris Leachman is perfect as sky pirate Dora, as is Mandy Patinkin as her number one obsequious son. Mark Hamill as the dastardly Muska wooing Sheeta to the dark side of the force delivers his best performance since Star Wars. (Hey, you think, maybe he could play Darth Vader!)

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
10/31/2008 5:09 PM   
Great review! I really love Miyazaki's films, but this one really seems to click with me most of all; I love everything about it--the sense of adventure, the musical score (both in Disney's dub and the Japanese version), the characters, the animation... this is a wonderful movie through and through.

I'm also pleased to see a review that praises Disney's dub. I agree that Disney does a wonderful job dubbing Miyazaki's/Ghibli's films; "Castle in the Sky" is the most underrated of the dubs IMO. I do admit that it isn't a perfect dub; the leads are somewhat too-mature sounding and the script sometimes chattier, but the performances by the rest of the cast more than make up for it, and I'm also glad that the actual storyline itself is unchanged. I think this dub's harshest detractors greatly overexaggerate its weak points; it's not a bad dub in the least and I believe that it still earns its place in terms of top-quality dubs. It's nice to see that your review acknowledges the dub as such. Great writing.