Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986)

Laputa Castle in the Sky is an action packed, imaginative animation from Japanese company Studio Ghibli, it was the Studio’s first full length feature. Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it is an unusual blend of action and fantasy following two children who come into possession of a mysterious stone. Though it’s not without its flaws and certainly not to all tastes, it is a generally enjoyable film-funny, moving, and stunningly art directed, an example of the Studio at their best.

Sheeta is a young orphaned girl lying low aboard an Airship. When a group of Sky Pirates invade looking for the strange ‘Levinstone’ she wears around her neck she is forced to jump overboard in a desperate bid to escape.

Meanwhile Pazu, a young boy and also an orphan is living alone in what was once the family house, his relatively normal existence about to change forever. Going to the Mine where he works one day he sees what he assumes is a falling star and runs over to investigate. He finds the unconscious Sheeta levitating, the ‘Levinstone’ around her neck now glowing. Helping her down he takes her home, where she soon recovers. Whilst the two are at his house, Pazu shows Sheeta a photograph his late father had taken some years before-Of Laputa, The Legendary Floating Castle said to rest in the sky. This sets the plot moving in earnest and before long the two are forced on a journey to find Laputa, and the truth behind The Levinstone and Sheeta’s background.

But they aren’t  journeying alone, caught between the Sky Pirates (lead by a creepy matriarch), The Army and a Mysterious Government official, all searching for the Levinstone and Laputa it proves a dangerous, eventful journey with many surprises along the way.

At first glance it’s a very complicated story to pull off; whilst the film is certainly confusing in parts Miyazki is largely successful in finding the right balance between action and plot the story needs to remain accessible.

Eschewing the traditional fantasy method of employing an expository heavy beginning, he plunge’s the film almost immediately into a series of exciting action sequences. It’s an entertaining opening that sets the tone of the film nicely, though some viewers may find it hard to relate to the initially thin motivations of the protagonists or the somewhat leisurely approach to revealing story details.

This latter point is, admittedly, an issue with the film. Plot details are drip fed to the audience- seemingly pointless secondary characters gradually come to the fore, whilst Laputa’s significance isn’t properly explained for a significant amount of time. It can be confusing keeping track of character’s motivations and some viewers may simply lose patience waiting for the plot twists to reveal themselves.

Whilst the plot’s structure could have been thought through in more detail, in most other respects the script is Impressive, Miyazaki displaying a clear understanding of character and pace. The script balances humour, characterisation and drama proficiently, giving the enthusiastic Voice Cast a lot to work with, and making the film a largely accessible watch for those that can accept the plot.

Though the film is Japanese most of the dialogue translates well into English subtitles, it’s generally convincing, -though a few instances of Japanese humour in the film may make for awkward viewing for some Western viewers, and the Main ‘Bad Guy’ in the film is landed with some truly banal dialogue at points, ending up a little two dimensional in comparison to other character’s.

The pre-teen leads are surprisingly convincing characters, their unlikely friendship providing a touching cornerstone to the film, lacking the hormonal angst older character’s would bring, theirs is a more carefree, fun, but no less gripping story, romantic connotations are hinted, but left to the audience’s imagination. A variety of supporting characters appear with varying stages of relevance and impact, few are memorable, and some are annoying, in any case it is confusing keeping track of who is who.  The film whilst containing a lot of action is family friendly, coarse language and violence are largely absent, though references to nuclear bombs and the Bible somehow find their way into the script.

Visually the film has few flaws. It opens with a bang and rarely stops for a breather, it’s pacier, and more action packed than many recent Hollywood animations.  Only the overlong middle section slows the film, weighed down with unnecessary, clichéd, characterisation and conversations.

Miyazaki directs the numerous action sequences with great flair and imagination, several scenes stand out- a chase sequence on a collapsing train track, and the attack by a mysterious giant robot on a Castle (Brad Bird may well have been taking notes when he made The Iron Giant…). Such scenes are very exciting, rarely repetitive, and not graphically violent, though some viewers may find the prevalence of the Army in a Family film a little unnerving.

The film was made on a somewhat limited budget but taking this into account the animation is quite impressive. The Characters look and feel convincing (even if a few secondary character’s look very similar) detailed facial expressions and mannerisms are balanced with convincing movement, In a story about flying castles and giant robots having convincing protagonists was essential, it’s a task Miyazaki pulls off easily.

It’s never made completely clear where or when the film is set, giving the crew the freedom to come up with a variety of unusual designs and landscape’s to fit around the character’s. The Army’s Giant Airship, and the Pirate’s hover bike’s (or at least that’s what they resemble) are utilised extensively in the film, as weapon’s and methods of transportation. As with many Studio Ghibli little is what it seems at first, both are proof, blending European and Oriental influence’s, with ingenious detail and surprising designs.

The film feature’s several locations- a town, a stone castle and Pazu’s farm all feature extensively, and all are thoroughly convincing. But it is Laputa itself which is the most impressive, the film gradually builds up to the Castle’s big reveal-the first  real glimpse is shrouded through a violent storm, it’s a clever decision as it keeps the audience guessing along with the protagonist’s, and adds to the feeling of wonder when it is finally revealed.

And what a reveal. Appearing slowly out of the clouds Laputa is a stunning, fully convincing creation which took up a significant part of the film’s budget to animate. This comes across clearly in the film- colossal, ancient and incredibly detailed (it seems to have its own ecosystem), it ranks as one of Studio Ghibli’s best (if strangest) designs, and makes the long journey to reach it worthwhile.

The animation is memorable, but so is the musical score. Gentle, cheerful and surprisingly catchy it complements the visuals well-Adding even more excitement in the chase and action scenes, and building the emotional undercurrent in quieter character based scenes. It’s a welcome addition to the film, used to a perfect extent.

In Conclusion Laputa Castle in The Sky is not a perfect film: a uneven script and erratic variable pacing are recurring issues, whilst the unusual plot will not convince or attract everyone. But the stunning production design and inventive story make up for most of the flaws, overall it’s a gripping, enjoyable way to spend two hours, and an impressive debut from Studio Ghibli, which has had a largely successful track record in the years since.

8/10 Paul Ashwell

This review is based on the Original Japanese Language version, an English dubbed version was later released for the North American Market, no different but completely unnecessary, it may be a better bet for viewers unaccustomed to subtitles


About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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