Even though 'Castle in the Sky' might not be one of Hayao Miyazaki's most put together films in terms of tight narrative (it's not often you see an animated movie top out at just over two hours) or deeply emotional resonance, it certainly set the stage for the future of Miyazaki's long and illustrious career as one of the great animators/directors of cinema.
'Castle in the Sky' is an imaginative, whimsical tale about two kids who quickly find themselves on a journey that will change their lives forever. Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin in the English dub) is a young girl who has come into possession of a crystal necklace that is said to hold very special powers. She's being hunted by pirates and the military. Everyone wants to get their hands on the powerful stone. Sheeta soon escapes the clutches of the military and finds a new friend in Pazu (James Van Der Beek) who is a miner in a small town.
Sheeta and Pazu live in an imaginary world full of complicated flying machines. As these gigantic dirigibles with their numerous propellers and rotors, glide through the clouds it's hard to not be awed. It doesn't really matter that many of the airships look rather cumbersome and inefficient, it's the outlandish designs that are so fun to look at. Watching the countless airships, each one crazier than the last, reminded me of watching a young kid drawing. Usually they start with something simple like the outline of a spaceship, then they add all sorts of cool stuff like guns, blasters, thrusters, and windows. That's what these designs seem like. The feel as if Miyazaki and his fellow animators started with the outline of a zeppelin and just started adding things here and there until they turned into these one-of-a-kind animations that are so peculiar that it's hard not to enjoy them for what they are.
The airships aren't the only things that float in the clouds. Pazu is obsessed with finding Laputa, the floating city. There's a legend of an entire city that floats in the clouds. The city holds untold power which is why the military wants Sheeta so bad. Her stone could presumably lead them to the city. The search is on.
What Miyazaki is so masterful at is creating these worlds and inhabiting them with characters we come to love. Not only is the world surrounding Sheeta and Pazu beyond cool, the relationship between them doesn't feel like it should exist in an animated movie. Almost like a relationship this layered and humanistic could only exist in a live-action drama. Not so. There's a spirit and a willingness to cover adult themes in Miyazaki movies that isn't in many other animated films. He doesn't cater to the masses, instead he creates characters, worlds, and stories that excite and amaze.
The pacing to 'Castle in the Sky,' compared to other Miyazaki films, seems rather slow and disjointed at times. Like I said, two hours might be a little long for this movie. But you can see the foundation being laid for Miyazaki's other films like 'Howl's Moving Castle,' 'Spirited Away,' and 'Ponyo' just to name a few. Other movies, while long, seem to have narratives that are just a tad tauter than 'Castle in the Sky.'
That's not to say in any way that 'Castle in the Sky' is bad or even mediocre. Miyazaki films already set an extremely high bar (for example, the lowest any of his directorial features have scored on RottenTomatoes is 80 percent). By any measure 'Castle in the Sky' is a resounding success in terms of character development and beautiful animation. It's a movie that can be watched again and again simply to gaze at the stunning visuals multiple times. No matter how many times you watch it, you'll have a hard time not being swept away.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Studio Ghibli release and it's distributed by Disney. Even though there isn't a Disney Movie Rewards star on the cover, there are indeed DMR points inside. It comes in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The Blu-ray is region free and a 50GB disc. It's packed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase and comes complete with a nicely embossed slipcover.
The key here is that Disney's extremely faithful transfer of 'Castle in the Sky' directly reflects Miyazaki's vision of the film. Yes, the recently reviewed release of 'The Secret of Arrietty' came complete with a glowing review from me saying how stunning the visuals were. 'Castle in the Sky' doesn't have the same pizzazz or downright gorgeous video than 'Arrietty' does, but that doesn't mean it isn't great in its own right. Animation styles change. Here the style mirrors the old style of Don Bluth (think the raw animation style of 'The Secret of NIMH'). Even though it doesn't have the striking presence of 'Arrietty' Disney's 'Castle in the Sky' transfer should be commended for sticking to the true look of Miyazaki's original film. As this is a new digital master from the original film elements.
'Castle in the Sky' has a softer, more subdued look than many of today's brightly colored animated features. Still the animation is simply beautiful to look at and Disney has done a magnificent job restoring the video. Even with somewhat restrained visuals it's amazing at how much detail is to be had in this presentation. Explosions pack a vibrant punch as oranges and reds explode. Lines are crisp and clear. Some scenic establishing shots look so good you could pause it, print it out, and frame it.
Colors are strong given the controlled nature of them. With more of an earthy palette – light browns, soft blues, and leafy greens – the movie takes on an even more whimsical feel. Blacks are nice and dark and are never hampered by tons of source noise. A few specks and blips pop up now and then, but nothing too egregious. Banding and aliasing are checked at the door. You'd think that a movie with so much sky and clouds featuring numerous color gradients would have at least some noticeable banding. Especially an animated movie. Nope! I didn't notice one instance of banding. Fans of the film will be overjoyed with this wonderful representation of one of Miyazaki's many classics.
Before we dive into the technical aspects of the audio presentation there are some noteworthy issues to discuss. First there are two different lossless ways to listen to the movie. You can either opt for the original language or an English dub. The original language version is a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Japanese track. The dub is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio English track. Yes, the English track and subtitles are still the same ones that people have complained about since the DVDs. It is the only lossless surround sound option on the disc, but if you're a huge fan of the movie you're still going to be dealing with the issues people have been complaining about for years already. Also, it would've been really nice to have a surround sound lossless track in the original language much like we had with 'Arrietty,' but that simply isn't provided here. You have to weigh your options and find out what's best for you.
Now, there are some differences between the two different lossless tracks. I listened to the movie with both tracks and can tell you that the English 5.1 mix definitely has much better sounding effects than the 2.0 Japanese track has. A good example of this is the buzzing wings of the insect-like pirate vehicles. In the Japanese track they sound high and whiny, producing a very nails-on-chalkboard type sound. Switch over to the English track and they sound much more pleasing to the ear. They're provided more low-end frequencies to play with so they produce more of a LFE-tinged "Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuzzz" rather than the high-pitched "Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!" of the Japanese track.
In both tracks dialogue is always clear and easy to hear. However, voices play much better with the incessant action in the English dub rather than the Japanese track. With the 5.1 surround sound voices are given more room to breathe as the explosive action is moved through the front speakers getting some action in the rear channels as well. With the 2.0 track everything is centered up front and sometimes the voices have a hard time overcoming the gunfights and explosions that occur.
Here's the deal. Each of the audio options has its own drawbacks, we know that. The 5.1 track is technically sound even though there may be some complaints on the actual translation. The 2.0 track isn't as well-rounded, and still must be played with what some would call incomplete subtitles anyway. These are the only options that are provided so fans will have to pick the lesser of the two evils I guess. There's no other way around it.
Miyazaki's film library will never get old. Time and again he's shown that he has the ability to create wonderfully imaginative worlds, characters, and movies that seemingly become instant classics. 'Castle in the Sky' is no different. Sure he's since perfected his craft even further, but this film is so whimsically inspired that it's impossible not to love. The disc has some stellar video. The audio has a few drawbacks, but none of them are because the technical aspects are subpar. The special features are thin also. Still, 'Castle in the Sky' is recommended watching for anyone who loves animation or Miyazaki's unique way of telling stories.