3 , 2004
in the Sky is a heartwarming bliss-out of a movie, full of
spirit and fun, and reminds you of the kind of movies Hollywood
used to make long ago. Watching, I am reminded of the golden age
of Hollywood romantic swashbucklers, of Errol Flynn and Saturday
afternoon serials. Is it odd that today's live-action movies are
increasingly becoming more and more cartoonish? That genuine spark
of imagination is increasingly hard to come by, lost in a sea of
plasticized computer animation. Yet here is a swashbuckling picture
that’s worth its weight in popcorn.
in the Sky is something of an adventure chase movie, about
two children who search for a legendary city behind the clouds.
Sheeta, the girl, is pursued by the army, government agents (who
will remind you of the Agents from The Matrix), and a gang
of pirates; she carries a jeweled family pendant that may hold the
key to discovering the city, named Laputa after Jonathan Swift’s
“Gulliver’s Travels.” Sheeta, like every Miyazaki
heroine, is confident and assertive, and would sooner grab a glass
bottle and knock out her captors than merely wait to be rescued.
an assault on a zeppelin, Sheeta escapes both the agents and the
pirates, and is discovered by Pazu, a wide-eyed boy who lives in
a mountainside mining town. He loves to build airplanes, and dreams
of adventure; he practically bursts at the seams when he’s
speaking of his late father’s accidental discovery of Laputa.
Like Sheeta, he is also an orphan, and becomes a kindred spirit;
the blossoming romance is both eloquent and old-fashioned in that
classic Hollywood way. “When you fell out of the sky, my heart
was pounding,” Pazu tells her. “I knew something wonderful
was about to happen.” It’s a great line.
success of Nausicaa of the Valley of
Wind enabled Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to create an independent
animation studio, where they could create their own unique works.
Most of the key players from the Nausicaa film were brought on board,
including key animators and composer Joe Hisaishi (his score is
excellent), and Studio Ghibli was born. Castle in the Sky
was the first Ghibli release, and fills the requirement of a well-rounded
crowd-pleaser. The tone of the film is lighter than Nausicaa,
and less serious; a goofy anarchy is scattered throughout. The pirate
gang is largely composed of an older woman named Dora (a dead ringer
for Pipi Longstockings’ mother) and her bumbling sons, mama’s
boys, all. Outlaws, yes, but disarming characters who grow on you
by the end.
is a great scene early on, where the Dora boys get into a macho
boxing match with Pazu’s adoptive father. It’s a sequence
of huffing and flexing and punching, and pretty soon the whole town
is brawling. It’s all great screwball comedy, like something
out of It’s a Mad, Mad World or Blazing Saddles.
This sets up one of the most inventive chase scenes Miyazaki, or
anyone, has ever filmed, involving the Dora clan, the children,
and the military across a series of vertigous bridges and trains.
are a number of thrilling chases, set squarely in the adventure
serial mold, involving trains, giant robots (a tribute to Max Fleisher’s
Superman cartoons), flying fortresses, gliders, and aircraft that
resemble giant beetles. This is a Miyazaki film; there is a lot
of flying, more than in any of his movies save Porco
Rosso, and everything has a free, sweeping flair. There
isn’t another filmmaker that makes flight so boldly romantic.
everything lies some wonderful animation and artwork. Castle
in the Sky is a great-looking movie. You see how the creativity
unleashed in Nausicaa has grown, as every succeeding Ghibli
production does; you can practically see the gears turning in the
filmmakers’ heads. There is an emphasis on background detail,
and composition and framing, in minor touches and quieter moments
where nothing much really happens.
influence is much closer to live-action cinema than the American
style, which emphasizes liquid movement and very fast cutting (the
reasoning is that audiences can’t sit still for more than
two seconds). One of my favorite scenes involves Pazu’s morning
ritual of playing his trumpet to a collection of doves; the birds
are fed when the song is done. I love this moment precisely because
it has no bearing on the plot; we're simply being asked to enjoy
the moment. These moments reoccur repeatedly, especially in Castle’s
final third, when the floating island of Laputa is discovered and
all the players come to a head.
world of Castle in the Sky is an inventive mix of futuristic
and Victorian-era technology. Pazu’s town is based on a Welsh
mining town, with houses cut across giant mountain gorges, locomotives,
and Model T’s. It all fits into the spirit of Jules Verne
and H.G. Wells, and, yes, Swift. Why does so much animation, Japanese
and American, follow such dull, slavish formulas when such uncharted
territory remains un-mined?
final act becomes quite serious, with reflections on nature and
war and human frailty; the scenes on Laputa are inspired, in part,
by Miyazaki’s Nausicaa books, and are genuinely moving.
Miyazaki is an entertainer in the grandest sense, a gentile Steven
Spielberg; he’s Spielberg without the schmaltz.