As the first movie ever released by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky bears some similarities to the films that would follow it while also being drastically different from most animations that the company would put out. The links it shares with many of its descendants are three: the existence of a heartwarming and well-rounded emotional aura that permeates its running time; the presence of a strong female character that beautifully travels through the arch that leads from helplessness to independence; and the theme of nature versus technology and industry.
Those three items are all an integral part of Miyazaki’s film-making signature and – consequently – of Studio Ghibli’s aura as well. However, differently from every effort that succeeded it, Castle in the Sky does not use any of those elements as its core. On the contrary, they merely serve as ornaments to a gigantic adventure; one whose scope has – intentionally – never been reached again by the talented troupe of Japanese artists.
The motivation that sends our heroes towards adventure is Laputa, a legendary floating city – the only one remaining from a forgotten era when most humans abandoned the Earth to live up in the sky – that is believed by most people to be a legend. Pazu, a boy who lives in a large mining town, however, pushed by a blurry picture of the soaring castle taken by his now-deceased father when he was caught in the middle of a peculiar storm, dreams of building a flying machine in order to track down Laputa and prove the authenticity of his dad’s tale.
Living as a humble assistant to the village’s miners, his fate changes dramatically when – one night – as his shift was about to end, a mysterious sleeping girl named Sheeta floats down from the sky protected by the power of a incandescent amulet. Pazu takes her into his home to recover and Sheeta wakes up with no memory whatsoever of how she ended up there. Later on, when both an extravagant group of pirates and the army simultaneously hit the village looking for a young girl, Sheeta remembers the two groups were after her and, having formed a quick strong bond with the girl, Pazu vows to protect her.
Castle in the Sky is, then, driven by the different – and often conflicting – interests all those parties have in the search for Laputa. The pirates are after the supposed treasures it carries; Pazu sees it as a matter of honor and tries to help Sheeta find out more about her past; while the government has dark intentions regarding one of the city’s rumored powers. Naturally, those threads entwine and frequently bump into each other, providing plenty of tense moments and intriguing conflicts that use the search for Laputa as its intersecting background.
Due to that, the movie is an all-out adventure whose progression would be right at home if featured on an Indiana Jones movie. The difference is that the universe in which the world’s favorite archaeologist lives features no laser-shooting robots and flying machines of absurd design. Hence, Castle in the Sky features a great share of hypnotizing action sequences populated with over-the-top physics, gun-wielding baddies, and impossibly overpowered weapons.
All of the thrilling segments are made even more exciting thanks to the sheer evilness of Colonel Muska, the government’s leading agent in the search for Laputa. One of Ghibli’s most remarkable villains, the character – brilliantly portrayed by Mark Hamill – is extremely successful in drawing utter hatred from viewers, and his impressive efficiency in achieving his goals is infuriating in a way that makes the entire ride very engaging.
In spite of those constant fireworks and the fact that, unlike other Ghibli movies, the focus here is on an enormous adventure rather than on a believable and delicate human story, the animated feature has a very strong heart. Firstly, the movie’s orchestrated soundtrack – composed exclusively for the American version – is extremely moving.
Most importantly, as an early display of Ghibli’s ability to approach feelings with astounding delicacy, Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship is incredibly innocent, and the sweet way through which it is carefully developed makes it enchantingly pure. In addition, the duo also forms, sometimes through many twists and turns, great truthful connections with other supporting characters in a very organic way, and those bonds are key to the development and growth of the cast as a whole.
The final masterful touch comes with how, as the plot reaches its summit, Castle in the Sky is able to combine all of its concurrent lines to deliver an environmental warning without making it sound overly preachy or exaggeratedly blatant, turning it into a secondary – yet resounding – element inserted into the film’s satisfying conclusion.
The work is not perfect, though, and the flick’s greatest issue might be a major source of disappointment to many. Even though Laputa is the centerpiece around which everything spins, and despite the fact the script hints the place has an intriguing backstory, the movie simply does not give its viewers enough information to allow them to form a coherent line of events regarding the city. It is commendable that the writers opted to, instead of spelling out Laputa’s great mysteries through a character’s single tacked on speech, scatter sublet clues all around the story, but they never truly come together and it is a tad frustrating to watch the adventure come to an end without being able to coherently express everything that lies behind Laputa’s rise and fall.
As the first effort by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky shows minor signs that those involved in its production had yet to reach their full capacity as movie-makers. However, after building a collection of twenty productions – most of which are highly beloved – it remains one of the brightest entries in the studio’s catalog. Aside from setting in stone many of the characteristics future releases would have – features that are essential elements to the Ghibli spirit, it delivers what is by far one of the most thrilling and imaginative hand-drawn journeys ever. Castle in the Sky joins fantasy, science-fiction, and nature in one mighty package that evokes powerful feelings. Pazu and Sheeta propelled Ghibli into quite a start.