animefringe june 2003 / reviews

Castle in the Sky
Format: trilingual DVD, 125 min.
Production: Disney / Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki
Comments: One of the best films I’ve ever watched on one of the worst DVD releases I’ve ever bought.
Animefringe Reviews:
Castle in the Sky

Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta, or Castle in the Sky, has finally come to Region 1 DVD. Though Disney has had a standing agreement with Studio Ghibli to release the studio’s canon in America, Laputa (which received an English name change, but more on that in a moment), has languished in limbo for years, until critical acclaim for Ghibli’s latest film, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away pushed Disney into releasing both films (along with Kiki’s Delivery Service) on DVD. While the film itself is a masterpiece, Disney’s DVD release is a mixed bag.

A quick note on the title; the Japanese title translates to "Laputa, Castle in the Sky." However, it was obvious from day one that the title was going to have to be changed for an American release, as “laputa” is an extremely offensive Spanish term, which roughly means “prostitute” (and that’s the cleanest English approximation). Jonathan Swift had this in mind when he named Laputa in Gulliver’s Travel’s. Though Miyazaki borrowed the name and the idea of the floating island, but had no intention of including Swift’s social commentary.

Of the film itself, much has been written between its 1985 Japanese release and now. The film is considered one of the classics of 1980s anime and cemented Studio Ghibli as a cultural force within Japan, and Hayao Miyazaki as a pioneer in the field of animation. Many aspects of Miyazaki’s authorship are acutely present within the film; the many morally ambiguous characters, the European setting (which was characteristic of much of Miyazaki’s early work), strong female leads, the importance of nature, and bizarre, good natured old men all make an appearance (indeed, it’s interesting to see the presence of these themes throughout Studio Ghibli’s, and especially Miyazaki’s works). This, by itself, makes Castle in the Sky an important film for anyone wowed by Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke.

The film takes place in an unnamed Northern European coal mining town, where a girl, Sheeta, falls out of a blimp when it is attacked by pirates. Pazu, an orphaned coal mining boy, catches Sheeta, and their adventure begins from there. Both Sheeta and Pazu are searching for Laputa, the fabled floating island mentioned in Gulliver’s Travels. However, both the pirates and the army see Sheeta and the glowing stone she wears around her neck as their tickets to Laputa. Together, Sheeta and Pazu must outwit the army and find the fabled island.

Visually, Castle in the Sky is stunning. The colors are vibrant and the images, especially Laputa and the various planes, are majestic. The characters and locales almost bounce off the screen. The film even competes extremely well against the 1997 Princess Mononoke and 2001 Spirited Away. Only in a few places does the color seem a little flatter and animation a little stiffer than more recent films (of course, this is crafted Ghibli animation, so it‘s only stiff by their own standard; Castle in the Sky is still more fluid than recent animation like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron). The character design is typical Studio Ghibli (the same soft lines and faces that have been a used since Nausicaa and Castle of Caglisotro) and the mechanical design is pure Miyazaki.

The sound is reasonably good. Unlike Spirited Away, Castle in Sky only has Dolby Digital sound for its English language track, which considering the age of the film, is understandable. The English language cast features Anna Paquin as Sheeta and James Van der Beek as Pazu; their voice acting is certainly better than the dregs usually associated with anime voice acting. However, they still sound unnatural and the Japanese track is the most important track for the serious fan. The disc also features a French (but no Spanish) language audio track.

Castle in the Sky is one of the greatest works of animation ever produced. The film should have been much more successful than it was, especially considering its setting and narrative. Unlike Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, which are steeped in Japanese mythology and history, Castle in the Sky takes place in an European setting, making it much more accessible to U.S. audiences than Miyazaki’s later films. However, the setting does not dilute the film in any way; it remains an incredibly endearing film, mixing sincere comedy with heart racing action. Unlike Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky features a lot of real action and a showdown between good and evil, much more in-line with American animation (though, again, this is handled in a more mature fashion than in most American animation).

So, one would have assumed, when Disney announced Castle in the Sky would be seeing a two disc DVD release, that they recognized the beauty and importance of this film. Sadly, Disney’s release of Castle in the Sky falls short of what this brilliant film deserves.

When a company goes to the trouble of releasing a two disc set of anything, one would assume that it would go to the trouble of acquiring material to fill up the disc. Sadly, there is very little of interest to anyone. The set does feature an intro (as do Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away) by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a fan of Miyazaki’s work. Sadly, for Castle in the Sky this is the highlight of the bonus material (Spirited Away features an extremely engaging Japanese broadcast, showcasing the making of the film and behind the scenes as Studio Ghibli). The disc does feature “Behind the Mic” interviews with James Van der Beek and Cloris Leachman, but I fail to see what either really has to add to the film experience, as neither had any real part in creating it, especially if one doesn’t put much stock in the English language track. Finally, there is also complete storyboard. For a film of this importance, such treatment is simply disgraceful. Granted, the age of the film does make finding bonus material difficult (though Disney has only themselves to blame for the tardiness of this release), but Disney could have easily rounded up an interview with someone at Ghibli, if not Miyazaki himself.

However, Disney did think to include a number of problems with the disc. First and foremost of these are the trailers that play as the disc begins. While they can be bypassed by pressing “menu”, it is ridiculous that every time I fire up one of these discs I must be bombarded with commercials. Shame on Disney: as one of the biggest media companies in the world they have no reason to hardcode commercials onto the disc. It would be more forgivable for smaller anime outfits to be pulling such tactics and Disney easily could have made the commercials an option on the DVD menu.

Additionally, when playing this DVD (as well as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service) on the computer, the DVD insisted that I load up new DVD software specifically for Disney DVDs. This is ridiculous. Why should I install buggy (I had the software crash and die every time on the Spirited Away menu), proprietary software to watch a DVD? If Disney must include DVD software, fine, but to make it install before play is outrageous. There is a work around; refuse completely to install the software once you put the disc in your DVD-ROM drive and then fire up your own DVD software, but I think Disney’s commandeering of the Windows autoplay feature is ridiculous.

Finally, my last major issue with Disney’s Castle in the Sky are the subtitles. They are poorly written and feature a number of typos. I assume the writer was attempting to say “as,” yet the subtitles feature the glaring “a;.” That’s right, there’s a semicolon. Disney should not make such typos and mistakes, and it barely qualifies as just a simple typo, as it comes up a couple of times in both Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away.

On the film’s merits alone, I would give Castle in the Sky a 100% and, at least, no less than a 95. However, Disney’s fumbling of the DVD release of this brilliant film mars it. When smaller anime outfits (and lets face it, everyone is smaller when compared with Disney) and mainstream film releases can put out a DVD without guerilla tactics marketing and typographical issues, one should think that a behemoth like Disney could be bothered to do the same, especially with such a wonderful film. Despite the issues, I recommend this disc for any anime fan; they will surely see the value and pure joy and excitement of this film, which the middle management at Disney evidently missed.