Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986; US Release Disney DVD, 2003)

Film director and writer Hayao Miyazaki, who has been likened to the Spielberg of anime (sans the mediocre films), commands a great deal of respect in Japan. For one thing, he's toasted box office records. Titanic, the second highest grossing film in Japan, is bookended by Miyazaki's own Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (the latter won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature last month.) But his films are also genuine works of art, rarely failing to achieve the highest artistic standard. Watching a Miyazaki film is like embarking on a journey through a fresh, magical world. You're never quite sure where you'll end up, and it doesn't matter, because you're enjoying yourself every step of the way.

So it's little wonder that fans get excited every time a Miyazaki film opens here, particularly when it's a film like Castle in the Sky, which has never been officially released in English. It's one of Miyazaki's finest achievements, but before last Tuesday the only way to see the film (that is, if you didn't understand Japanese or Chinese) was by trading copies of badly subtitled bootlegs over eBay, or getting a friend to translate the entire film for you. Neither option was particularly savoury.

Now, though, Disney has released a two-disc DVD set of Castle in the Sky (along with two-disc sets of Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service) with an English dub by an all-star cast and the option of watching an official subtitled version. The disc also features a longer and hugely revamped musical score by composer Joe Hisaishi, who literally rewrote the soundtrack for the North American DVD release. Could life get any better?

Well, yes; I have issues with the dub, but more on that later. I should start that by saying that if you're a fan of anime or of movies at all, find some way to watch this film. There's just no way you should pass this up, even if it means stealing your friend's DVD player. If you're already familiar with the movie, the new release won't hurt.

One of the beauties of this film is that it defies simple categorization. I suppose you could call it an adventure within a fantasy, but even that wouldn't do it justice, as it also contains elements of mystery, science fiction, war, comedy, and drama. It is arguably also a children's film, since there is little in it that's unsuitable for younger audiences, and since both protagonists are children. And yet, for all its seemingly chaotic genre-mixing, it never once loses coherence. In fact, it's one of the most focused anime films I've seen; the pacing is as taut as a highwire.

The opener itself is a classic. A vast military airship, shaped like an enormous blimp, is seen drifting ominously through the clouds. A young girl (Sheeta), sits quietly at a window, apparently a prisoner. She wears a pendant about her neck. The ship is abruptly attacked by a pack of air pirates, flying on vessels that look like dragonflies, or scooters with gossamer wings. In the midst of the raid, Sheeta finds a way to escape, climbing out the window of the airship. The pirates, attempt to retrieve her, but she slips and falls, disappearing into the night sky.

In what must one of the most goosebump-inducing opening title sequences of all time, we are treated to a montage of a different world, a world of flying cities and gardens, followed by a shot of Sheeta falling through the clouds to her apparent doom.

Back on Earth, we are introduced to Pazu, a young boy who leads a simple life working as an assistant in a mining facility. One night he sees he sees a girl floating toward the ground from the heavens, unconscious. (His reaction to this rather otherworldly sight is one of Miyazaki's many subtle drops of humour.) He takes her in. The next morning they become quick friends. He tells her about his father, and his father's search for the legendary "castle in the sky," called Laputa. The name seems to stir some memory in Sheeta, but before they have a chance to talk more, pirates are pulling up to their driveway, and Sheeta, terrified, disguises herself as a boy and escapes with Pazu.

And so the chase begins. It isn't long until the two children find themselves pursued not only by pirates, but by military forces and Muska, a sinister secret agent with a hidden agenda. At the centre of it all is Sheeta's pendant. What is its significance? What do the others want with it? And how does Laputa fit into the picture?

It is a joy as the mystery unfolds. Miyazaki's visual style is sumptuous without ever being extravagant or excessive; each detail is lovingly conceived, but never focussed upon to the detriment of the story. The film's fusion of seemingly incompatible technologies -- futuristic airships and robots coexist with steam engines and automobiles from the Industrial Revolution -- is fascinating, and all the more so because of its utter seamlessness. Each frame is like a postcard from a different world; and yet, as with so many of his films, Miyazaki is able to draw us into his world and make us believe what we are watching. A lesser filmmaker would have tried to dazzle us; Miyazaki chooses instead to focus on the familiar, the everyday things that we take for granted but seem so beautiful when rendered in animation. A scene where Pazu makes breakfast for his young guest while showing her around the house is so effortless, so quaint, that you may find yourself smiling without even realizing it.

The film's sense of intimacy is important, because it also figures greatly in the meat and potatoes of the film -- the characters. It isn't so often that one finds truly convincing characters in film; even the hero in Princess Mononoke is a little too perfect for his own good. The children of Castle in the Sky follow archetypes -- Pazu's the sometimes-foolish but ever-noble hero, while Sheeta's the mysterious girl with the hidden past -- but they win us over because they're likable and their actions make sense. Granted, their relationship doesn't progress very much, because they're friends the instant they see each other; but that's okay, because Pazu seems like the kind of guy who would want to make friends with anyone, and Sheeta, an innocent girl on the run, is in definite need of one.

Besides, they're children, and there's enough of an emotional arc to the film to counter the need for any further complications in the characters' development. The growing threat to the children's innocence, and their increasingly desperate struggle not only to survive, but to preserve the values of goodness and decency in the amidst of an ever-pervasive evil; rarely have I seen a film with so vivid a progression. The film's first battle is an unpretentiously goofy village brawl that's played purely for guffaws; this is followed by a light-hearted but exciting railroad chase, culminating in the destruction of just about half the city's bridges. (Note: the comic relief in this film, while not always perfect, is very good, and never strays from the context of what's happening -- unlike, say, the horrendous comic acts found in the Star Wars prequel films.) But by the final quarter the film's tone has become more serious. The children have come a long way from home, and we feel as though we've come a long way with them, as they fight for their last chance of survival, eventually choosing the route of an ultimate sacrifice.

As with most films that have children at the centre of attention, there's a moral to the story. It's not exactly subtle, but isn't hammered home either -- we get a bit of a monologue from Sheeta towards the end, but it's nothing we can't agree with, and that's about it. There are also clear environmentalist symbols, like that of Laputa itself, a floating Eden which becomes threatened by the monstrous forces of technology-gone-amok within it. And Sheeta's pendant reminds me more and more of Tolkien's One Ring every time I see it: although it doesn't tempt the protagonists, it does become a symbol of power, and with it, greed and lust.

Okay, so I've raved long enough about the film. Bottom line: it's good and you should watch it! But what about the Disney release? Well, there are two aspects to it that differ from the original: the dubbing and the music.

I've seen a lot of atrocious dubs, including one for another Miyazaki classic, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, that utterly butchers the movie. (Editors note: Miyazaki has said that he would 'rather people forget about this version' of Nausicaa.) It even adopted a new title, Warriors of the Wind, apparently (and stupidly) for marketability reasons. Castle in the Sky isn't half as bad; but, sadly, it is inferior to most of the other Miyazaki releases. Princess Mononoke had its weak spots, but Spirited Away and especially The Castle of Cagliostro had near-perfect dubs, and it's a shame that Castle in the Sky doesn't live up to either of them.

So, let's begin with the good. And the good is, somewhat surprisingly, James Van Der Beek as Pazu. Granted, the guy's a lot older than whoever it was that did the original Pazu, but somehow he manages to imbue the character with the same spirit of wide-eyed enthusiasm and noble foolishness that made the original so lovable. He's clearly relishing his role here, and it pays off.

Then there's Mark Hamill (a.k.a. Luke "No! It's impossible!" Skywalker) as the bad guy, Muska. He's also clearly enjoying himself, but unfortunately his performance is a misinterpretation of the character. He plays Muska like a villain from the Ninja Turtles, chuckling maniacally and making over-the-top declarations of his Absolute Evil. A glance at the original Muska reveals a performance that is much calmer, more reserved and refined, and inevitably more sinister.

The biggest disappointment is Anna Paquin, who voices Sheeta. Her performance is another misfire, but this time it seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the medium. Castle in the Sky may be partly a children's film, but that doesn't mean you need to pander to children in order to get the dialogue across, and that was the impression I got after hearing Paquin deliver some of her more emotional lines. Unintentionally or not, the result is that many of her lines feel either forced or self-obvious. And furthermore, like Claire Danes in Princess Mononoke, Paquin's teenage drawl makes Sheeta seem more spoiled and self-righteous than she really is. Fortunately, the rest of the ensemble is excellent -- there are some particularly good performances by some of the minor cast members.

Finally, in one of the more unusual face-lifts for a revived film, we have a new soundtrack by the same composer who wrote the original score for the 1986 version. Joe Hisaishi's original music, which was about forty minutes long, consisted of plenty of themes: the title music, representing the protagonist's journey, is sweepingly memorable and, by the end, heartbreaking.

The new score wisely retains all of these themes, but it has been entirely re-recorded. It is now completely orchestral. The first movie had a smaller budget, and employed synthesizers for most of its running time.The new score is also, significantly, about twice as long as the old one. The DVD release allows you the option of hearing both versions by switching between the dub (which contains the new music) and the sub (which has the original music.) Unfortunately, you can't mix and match, but I suppose that would be a little too much to ask.

The new music makes a tremendous difference, though it's one that perhaps most people wouldn't notice on a purely conscious level. It's much more pervasive and in-your-face, like a Hollywood soundtrack. There's a new theme for the military, characterized by ominous brass and drum tattoos, which is pretty cool. And there's a new, churning action cue that jumped out at me during a particularly exciting scene. The end result is, however, questionable. Isolated from the movie, I like the new music more; within it, it's less effective than the original. Miyazaki uses silence in very effective ways, and much of that effect is lost with the new score, which bombards our senses instead of letting us form our own perceptions. The climactic quarter is a perfect example: much of the climax is unscored in the original. We only have the images to guide us, and those images are dark, bleak, and claustrophobic. The new score, however, gives us some background chase music that's good enough on its own, but ignores the aura created by the visuals, some of which are pretty unsettling. I admit that the change is subtle, but subtly, the new music undermines the seriousness of many of the film's starker moments.

The combination of dubbing and music in the ‘Disneyfied' version of Castle in the Sky thus makes it more cartoonish than the original. All the same, the set is a must-have. I would recommend watching the subtitled version first, but by all means try out the dub as well. It's got high points, and Hisaishi's music certainly makes for a better listening experience than the original, even if it's not always as effective. Bottom line: Castle in the Sky should be in every film fan's collection. Now, if only Disney would do something about Nausicaa....

[Kevin Lau]

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