Castle in the Sky (of 1) (Mania.com)
Review Date: Saturday, April 05, 2003
Release Date: Tuesday, April 15, 2003
What They Say
The magic touch of master animator Hayao Miyazaki is visible from start to finish in CASTLE IN THE SKY -- an imaginative tale full of mystery and adventure. The high-flying journey begins when Pazu, a mining apprentice, finds a young girl wearing a glowing pendant and floating down from the sky. Together, they discover both are searching for the legendary floating castle, Laputa, and vow to unravel the mystery of the luminous crystal around her neck. Their quest won't be easy, however. There are air pirates, secret agents, and astounding obstacles to keep them from the truth -- and from each other. With spectacular animation, a fabulous musical score, and the voice talents of Anna Paquin (Sheeta), James Van Der Beek (Pazu), and Cloris Leachman (Dola), CASTLE IN THE SKY is an animated masterpiece you'll never forget!
Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky, or simply Laputa, is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest directorial efforts and was instrumental in establishing Miyazaki’s reputation as a master animation director and cementing Studio Ghibli’s box office influence. Full to the brim of the trademark elements of a Miyazaki story, Laputa is a favorite film of many animation fans.
With Miyazaki’s Oscar victory still in recent memory, the time is ideal for Laputa to be released onto an eager American market. However, taking in the movie again, this time in the form of the new Buena Vista release, I found Laputa to be less than the sum of its many and wondrous parts.
This film dates back to 1986, and was originally recorded in stereo. The presentation of the Japanese language version here is just wonderful, and is perhaps nearly exactly as the original filmgoers heard it. Being an older film, there isn’t a lot of directionality, but what little there is, is very effective.
The English version is much newer, dating back to the late 1990s. This is not the older English dub released by Streamline and rarely seen outside of Japan. Instead, this is a complete overhaul of Laputa’s sound design, beefing things up to a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround stage, complete with an all-star vocal cast, new sound effects, and a new, orchestral score from the film’s original composer Joe Hisaishi. The mix is big, exciting, and quite dynamic, and while the new mix is excellent from a technical standpoint, a part of me is saddened by the modernizing changes. However, if you want to give your speakers a workout, this aggressive English track is the way to go.
Also included (perhaps to cater to the French Canadian market) is an older French dub that uses the original film elements in a stereo mix. The French audio track is only a hair softer than the Japanese track but is just as clear and, in some ways, more pleasing. With its vaguely European setting, Laputa is quite appropriate in French, and this track is my favorite of the secondary languages here.
The main feature is a very nice progressive encode, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Although the image suffers from some edge enhancement, overall, the picture and color balance is very pleasing. There are some visible rainbows in some of the fine detail, but they are uncommon and fairly benign for source material this old. The print also shows its age in the form of white specks, visible during the darker scenes, but present through just about the entire film.
Although I intended to avoid directly comparing the US release against the previous Japanese release, I’m sure to receive questions about which is superior, and, without hesitation, the US release is the more satisfying image with it’s progressive encode and richer color balance. The Japanese release has a softer, more natural image, but the image suffers from interlacing and encoding artifacts, and colors appear washed out in places.
This release uses DVD alternate angles to satisfy the needs of both the family audience and the anime audience. Title cards and credits are presented in either English or Japanese, depending on the language preference selected in the menu. Unfortunately, while the audio languages may be selected on the fly during the movie, the alternate angle selection is locked out from the remote. This is similar to the design on the earlier Princess Mononoke release, and is quite annoying.
No packaging provided for review purposes.
My first impression of the menus (after bypassing the front-loaded trailers) was, “Wow!” This is a movie with great art design and fabulous music, and the anamorphic, widescreen menus utilize the film’s assets to great strength. Unfortunately, after poking around for a while, I realized that these menus are flawed in very disappointing ways.
The most obvious thing that’s gone wrong with them is that each selection from the main menu leads to an animated transition. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem, but each transition is identical, meaning that the novelty wears off too quickly. The fact that the animation for the transition (taken from a pivotal scene in the movie) is poorly framed (there’s foreground clutter), fuzzier than the still menu images, and runs for a fraction too long, make navigation a chore.
What ultimately ruins the design of the menus is that the subtitle selections are confusing. When selecting the audio language on the “Set Up” screen, the user is presented with an option labeled, “Captions.” Under the “Captions” submenu, the user can select between “English for the Hearing Impaired” (closed-captioning, or so-called dubtitles), “English Subtitles” (literal translation of the Japanese dialogue), or “None”. Then, under the “Bonus Features” menu, the user may select to turn on the literal subtitle track or turn it off. My question is simply why the menu designers at Buena Vista, who arguably spend more time and money on how to bring their product to the widest range of people, chose to bury the subtitle selection under menus labeled “Captions” and “Bonus Features”, and then gave different options in each location.
Another problem is that there is no way for the user to select which of the two alternate angles to use during playback, except incidentally by selecting a language track. Moreover, the alternate angle cannot be selected during the movie, so if you wanted to watch the film in English, but with the original title cards and Japanese credits, you would have to select the Japanese audio track, then switch the audio during the movie. Granted, it’s not likely that you would want to do this, but to offer a feature, then lock it out from the remote and not provide a direct menu option for it is frustrating.
This two-disc set at first appears to be loaded with extras, though on closer inspection, they aren’t nearly as rich as they first appear. Disc 1 of this two-disc set provides a minimal set of extras, as most of the first disc is dedicated to the film itself. We get a brief introduction to the film from John Lasseter, best known as the director of the Pixar Toy Story films. This interview is also front-loaded on the film itself (a criminal mistake), as his comments are not particularly informative, teetering close to condescension once or twice during its relatively brief running time.
The “Behind the Microphone” featurette fares better. Although the actors spend more time talking about their characters (“My character is a blah...blah…blah…”) and the plot of the movie, we still get some interesting insight into the dubbing process. Mark Hamill (yeah, that Mark Hamill) does a better job than most of explaining his character’s vocal affectations. And, it is fun to watch Cloris Leachman demonstrate how to dub lines while her character is eating. Purists should be warned that several key plot spoilers are revealed in this feature.
My favorite extra on disc 1 is a collection of three of the original Japanese trailers for the film. Each trailer is subtitled and is individually chapter-stopped for easy browsing. It’s a little thing, but it’s always fun to see how a classic film was originally marketed to the audience.
Disc 2 is dedicated to a presentation of the film as timed production storyboards. I find this kind of extra to be endlessly fascinating, and given the opportunity to view the film as it begins to emerge from the creator’s mind, but before it is fully fleshed out. These have been a trademark feature included with the Japanese releases, and it’s nice to see the transition here for the US market.
(please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Laputa is the story of a young boy, Pazu, who sees a girl, Sheeta, falling from the sky one evening and takes her in. As the two get to know each other, they learn they have more in common than is at first apparent. They are both orphans, but more significantly, they both carry a secret that will tie them together and lead them to their ultimate destinies. That secret is Laputa, the legendary floating city that Pazu’s father searched for until his death, and the key to which just might be Sheeta herself. Together, they search for Laputa, pursued by mysterious government forces and a team of bumbling sky pirates.
Though the film runs for over two hours, it never drags, carefully balancing drama, mystery, suspense, action, and comedy. The art design is fabulous, from the European-influenced valley town that Pazu lives in, to Laputa itself, a wonderland of the natural and technological, both familiar and alien at the same time. The music from Joe Hisaishi is wonderful, arguably his best score for a Studio Ghibli production.
But on closer inspection, Laputa does not hold up well in comparison to other Miyazaki films. While it is a good adventure story, full of the whimsy and wonder present in all of his stories, Laputa feels like a by-the-numbers Miyazaki film. We get the elaborately animated flying sequences; the conflict between the natural world and the mechanical; idealistic, but compassionate heroes; strong female characters; etc. The end result a bit of a self-indulgent mess in which everything but the kitchen sink is crammed in. While Laputa may have seemed fresh and inventive when first released, it suffers today from the fact that Miyazaki was able to develop his core themes in superior ways in later films.
The story of the search for a lost civilization is a very appealing one and has been the stuff of pulp literature for ages. As an adventure story and tribute to the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Laputa is a very good adventure story. Unfortunately, like all Lost Civilization stories, Laputa really doesn’t know where to go once the adventurers reach their goal. Laputa, as a setting, is interesting, but there are only a couple of ways that this kind of story can work itself out, most of them clichéd. Miyazaki walks the final act of his story down a careful tightrope, avoiding banal moralizing, and trying to keep the suspense and excitement high. Unfortunately, without a lesson or enlightenment, the story wraps itself up without a meaningful ending.
Some critics of the film have tried to characterize the story, not so much as an adolescent adventure, but as a tale of awakening, for which the journey is the goal itself. Save for some obvious symbolism in the final minutes of the film, I don’t find this kind of analysis to hold up. The most glaring shortcoming is the character of Sheeta, who seems, through much of the film, to be a completely blank slate, an archetypical character without any real motivations. Pazu himself is similarly archetypical, without any strong characteristics other than a love of flying. Upon these silhouettes of characters, it is difficult to map any real character dynamic over the course of the film. Compared to the heroes of, say, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a similarly themed series Miyazaki helped to develop in the 1970s and then abandoned, Pazu and Sheeta are more likeable, but also rather bland.
Several years ago, Buena Vista tagged Laputa, along with Kiki’s Delivery Service, to be dubbed and released into the American market. For reasons that surely boil down to marketing decisions, we are only now receiving the newly commissioned English version of this film in wide home video release. For the dub, Buena Vista applied their practice of using a brand-name cast of live-action stars, rather than professional voice actors, and the result is sure to please some and annoy others.
Only Mark Hamill (Muska) and Cloris Leachman (Dola) seem comfortable with their characters, stealing every scene they’re in with glorious hamminess. Anna Paquin as Sheeta effects an ersatz European accent, which mostly works, but from which she sometimes slips into a more mundane accent. I found less to like about James van der Beek as Pazu. Though he has the right tone for Pazu, perhaps sounding a bit too earnest at times, even effecting pubescent voice cracks along the way, I found myself imagining Pazu channeling Peter Brady, which probably wasn’t the director’s intention. The overall effect of the dub is one of campiness, which works well for the movie as a pulp adventure story for children, but will likely infuriate fans who view Laputa as serious cinema.
Rather than simply dubbing the film into English and calling well enough alone, the English language version features new music. The original score was a classic, which merged the organic range of a full orchestra with synthetic sounds. The overall effect gave the Laputa soundtrack a very unique texture, immediately identifiable. The new score replaces all of the synthetic sounds with full orchestral versions, and fills in some of the quiet scenes with background music. The new music is very much of a piece with the original, and the old and new music are used seamlessly within the film. Unfortunately, in the transition to full orchestra, the score loses some of its identity, sounding just like every other big movie score these days. Even more damaging, many of the film’s dramatic scenes, especially the passage through the storm clouds, originally presented in total silence, now feature soaring music. Joe Hisaishi is a marvelous composer, and the new music never rings false, but it still feels like the movie has lost some of its identity. I think would enjoy listening to a CD of the new Laputa score, but I find that the original interpretation works better within the film.
The original Japanese language version is not without its faults either. While Buena Vista went the extra mile in preserving the original version, going so far as to put the original title card and credits on a DVD alternate angle, there are still problems. The first major problem is that the subtitles are grossly mistimed throughout the film. Sometimes they show up early, sometimes late. I know that the check disc I reviewed supposedly represents the final version of the film, but I hope that this problem is resolved before the DVD is finally released. Also, several minor lines, mostly exclamations and names, are left untranslated. While this isn’t as big a deal as the mistimed subtitles, it is annoying to have the characters talking or yelling onscreen without any translation. The ending song is untranslated in either the Japanese or English version.
Despite some problems with the subtitles, there really isn’t anything about this presentation to dissuade me from recommending the DVD to interested buyers. At the price, this release feels superior to the previous Japanese R2 release. The new English dub version is fine, though I found myself enjoying the French dub more.
Rather, I find myself hesitating on a full recommendation on the basis of the film itself. While the release of a Studio Ghibli film in the Western market, especially one from Miyazaki, should be cause for celebration, this one stands as a minor entry his oeuvre. Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a very good film, but somehow, when discussing the films of Hayao Miyazaki, good just doesn’t seem like enough.
Japanese Language,English 5.1 Language,Spanish Language,French Language,English Subtitles,Introduction by John Lasseter,Behind the Microphone,Original Japanese Trailers,Original Japanese Storyboards
Panasonic Panablack TV, Codefree Panasonic RP56 DVD player, Sony ProLogic receiver, Yamaha and Pioneer speakers, Monster cable. (Secondary equipment, Pioneer 105s DVD-ROM, ATi Rage Fury Pro, ViewSonic A90f, PowerDVD 3.0)
Mania Grade: B
Audio Rating: A-
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: N/A
Menus Rating: B-
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 3 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Castle in the Sky