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"Castle In The Sky": Lofty Goals?

Legends speak of a castle, sailing high through the air, known as Laputa. One man has seen the island and lived to tell about it, but his crazy stories have left him an outcast. His son means to find this island in order to prove his father right, and he may get his wish after a young girl falls from the sky with an enchanted jewel. Pazu and Sheeta must make their way to the castle in the sky, but with sky pirates and the military after that jewel, it’s not going to be an easy ride.

This will earn me a flaming volley of “you uneducated miscreant”-type emails, but I missed Castle in the Sky during Toonami’s legendary “A Month of Miyazaki.” If Osamu Tezuka is Japan’s Walt Disney, and Shotaro Ishinmori is Japan’s Stan Lee, can we call Miyazaki its Genndy Tartakovksy: a currently active artist who knows how to make something appropriate for all ages that is fun for both adults and children? Whatever your preferred comparison, though, it’s a legend to live up to.

There’s no doubt that Castle in the Sky (formerly Laputa, but changed to avoid problematic meanings associated with that word), is a visually beautiful film. For a movie from 1986, the animation is mostly silky smooth, with only a few moments of “they didn’t draw in every single frame they could have.” Visually, you can put this next to any animated series or non-CG, non-Disney movie of the past ten years, and it will blow 90% out of them out of the water for sheer quality of animation.

Story-wise, it starts off strong, drags a little bit in the middle, and doesn’t quite regain its pace near the end. The opening scenes are fast-paced and introduce the characters rather quickly, putting Sheeta and Pazu on the run from both the pirates and government before you can get bored. But once sides are chosen at the halfway point, the movie slams its brakes against the narrative, turning a chase movie that started with a lot of intrigue into a slice-of-life thing. While it’s obviously necessary for the story to take this path so you can learn why the newly friended set of characters are to be trusted, the movie then takes a tumble towards the inevitable conclusion after everyone reaches Laputa. Things hit a frenetic pace for a bit here as everyone struggles for Sheeta’s necklace, and it never returns to the balanced pace of the first half.

But the movie has an undeniable yet unquantifiable charm. While most contemporary non-Pixar animated works fail to get inside you—settling instead for kid-friendly action plus gross jokes, or mecha-piloting, monster-smashing manliness—Castle in the Sky has believable characters, an innate sweetness and genuine chemistry between the leads, and even some soft spots in otherwise vitriolic elderly women. This is an adventure movie through and through, but the leads are characters that children will instantly like and hope to be akin to.

The voice actors bring a unique sound to the production, which tends to happen the rare times that Disney voices something they didn’t animate. Don’t be put off by seeing James Van Der Beek (Pazu) and Anna Paquin (Sheeta) in the leads; this is a twelve-year-old dub, from back when they were of an appropriate age to voice these characters. Cloris Leachman is the sky pirate Dola, and Mark Hamill is the villainous Muska. Jim Cummings, Andy Dick, Corey Burton, Michael Sorich, Tress MacNeille, Debi Derryberry and others fill out the cast. Each actor gives his or her character their own quirks: Sheeta sounds a little foreign; viewers will keep wanting Pazu to either say “I don’t want your life!” in a horrible Texas accent or start pining for Tom Cruise’ wife; but Mark Hamill wisely eschews the Joker voice he made so iconic during the 90′s, and continues to show that he could be a really great VA.

Don’t worry, there is a Japanese language option on the disc; it’s just that it is what it is. People will either only listen to the Japanese track for authenticity, or play the English language track if they wish to give Disney the benefit of the doubt.

It’s definitely interesting to see what kind of extras Disney tackles onto a Japanese production. It comes with a lithograph that is reminiscent of the pencil boards that used to come with multitudes of Japanese releases, and while it is nice, it really isn’t more than a quality printout of an iconic image from the movie (also used on the box art) on high-quality paper.

Disc one holds the movie and a short introduction by John Lasseter, who has nothing to do with the movie. This could have easily been expanded into a more substantial extra feature; as it is, there’s something a little insulting about opening the DVD with an artistic luminary telling you that you will like this movie.

Disc two holds the bulk of the features. These include nearly a half hour of small interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and related people, which carry some nicely done tidbits of information, and a dated feature interviewing Dawson, Phyllis, and Luke Skywalker. It also invites the question “Where the hell is Anna Paquin?” or, if you’re like this reviewer, “Who the hell is Anna Paquin again? Oh, she’s Rogue.” A “World Of Ghibli” feature is an interactive map of Studio Ghibli works, instructing the viewer to select locations to learn about the characters in Studio Ghibli movies. When you click on Laputa you’re given a character profile quiz. While work obviously went into this feature, the fact that you can’t visit all the locations on the map is just annoying, and its overly simplistic nature indicates it is meant for the younger set.

Lastly, the disc provides full animated storyboards for the entire movie, complete with both English and Japanese language audio tracks. On a Blu-Ray, this feature could have easily been handled as a picture-in-picture deal with the movie, and honestly, could have probably fit on the main disc as an alternate angle. The fact that it’s shoved onto a secondary disc means you can’t really compare the storyboards with the final project, which seems to defeat the purpose of the inclusion altogether. Yes, seeing the original sketches is nice, and Jin-Roh: Legend of the Wolf Brigade proved that a print copy of the storyboard is an incredible pack-in. But we’re in the digital era. Let’s take that to the next level, and put the final product and the rough sketches together so you can directly compare them. It’s somewhat understandable that only Ponyo is getting a Blu-Ray release (it’s the newest film, it’s high-def instead of a 1986 film, etc.), but seeing such an opportunity missed is the most painful part.

Castle in the Sky and this DVD have undeniable flaws, like an occasionally hiccuping plot. But these are balanced by the sweetness of the characters and some good production design. There is no shame in putting this DVD on your shelf.

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