Hayao Miyazaki can do no wrong, or so I thought before I watched Castle in the Sky. This film tells the story of Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin of the X-Men movies), a girl in possession of a mysterious pendant that all sorts of villains want. Sheeta falls from the sky into the life of Pazu (voiced by James Van Der Beek, aka Dawson of Dawson’s Creek), a young miner with a protective streak a mile wide. Pazu opts to help Sheeta find safety from the pirates that are after her, disrupting his own life to save her. On the journey, Pazu tells Sheeta the story of Laputa, the city in the sky. Sheeta is the heir to the Laputian throne, but she must decide whether it’s more important to save her city or her friends.
The film sounds great when you read about it. Pirates, the “boy meets girl” story, flying cities…Castle in the Sky has it all. But that’s the problem. It seems as though so much time was spent developing the storyline that no one thought to develop the characters. Sheeta is not the brave kick-ass heroine that viewers want. She is a dull little girl who does what she’s been told, and if that’s saving the world then she’ll do it while she floats around innocently. Pazu is no better. His hero complex is entertaining, but other than that he is a paper doll with no real personality. Even the bad guys are boring. Colonel Muska (voiced by Mark Hamill) is the worst of the film. He appears out of nowhere over and over, and has not a single redeeming quality. Mama Dola (Cloris Leachman) and her band of air pirates are the only characters in the entire movie that seem to have some depth to their personalities.
The other big issue I have with this movie is the sound quality. It’s such an action-packed adventure film that it’s a shame the destruction and mayhem is so quiet. Some of the sounds are indecipherable, and when you can’t tell a gunshot from an explosion, that’s a bad thing. I considered having my ears checked until James Van Der Beek’s voice came blaring through my speakers.
Aside from the character flaws and sound concern, Castle in the Sky is pretty similar to Miyazaki’s other films. The animation in this movie is spectacular. Only Studio Ghibli could produce a movie with such stunning architectural designs, futuristic machinery, and beautiful scenery. Likewise, the romance that brews between Sheeta and Pazu is simply adorable and sweet, reminiscent of that of Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away. Who doesn’t want two orphans to find happiness with each other, especially when they are so closely linked through their attachment to finding Laputa? Their characters may have been underdeveloped, but the viewer will still appreciate their chemistry, even if they are cartoons.
Another similarity to Miyazaki’s other works is the political agenda. Castle in the Sky has some major hints about being environmentally friendly in there. Also, the whole “the bad guy is part of the army and wants to use our pretty sky city to destroy the rest of the world” thing may lead viewers to wonder if Miyazaki is anti-military.
This isn’t my favorite Studio Ghibli film, but it’s not completely awful. I would recommend it for Miyazaki fans, or newcomers who haven’t seen his other films yet. But if you’ve watched the others, don’t bother with this one. It’s bound to disappoint you.
DVD Bonus Features
The Disney releases of Studio Ghibli films have very dissatisfying special features. There is an introduction by John Lasseter, a storyboard presentation of the movie and then “The World of Ghibli” footage that is found on all of the Miyazaki/Disney films. If you haven’t checked this out on any of the others, it consists of “Enter the Lands,” which is totally missable and “Behind the Studio,” which is a look at documentaries and interviews with Miyazaki. The latter is definitely worth watching.
"Castle in the Sky" is on sale March 2, 2010 and is rated PG. Adventure, Animation, Children & Family, Fantasy. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Starring Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman, James Van Der Beek, Jim Cummings, John Hostetter, Mark Hamill, Richard Dysart.