I've always been wary of reviewing a Ghibli presentation - the fandom surrounding the studio is not only a Japanese phenomenon, but also one that's spread internationally. However, with Hayao Miyazaki's new film (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) having recently been released in Japan and set to hit Western shores sometime next year, it seems like now is the perfect time to take a retrospective look at the movies that have made him famous.
Hayao Miyazaki plays to his strengths in Laputa: his world-building skills are astonishing, submersing the viewer in a pseudo-Victorian landscape, complete with an active mining trade and a horde of classic vehicles. However, it becomes immediately apparent that this is actually taking place in an alternate timeline that Miyazaki has created, with huge zeppelins, complex flying machines and a whole host of mythical robots. This technique was later used for Steamboy, a movie set in Victorian England, but I feel that Miyazaki is more successful in using this particular setting because he doesn't fall into the trap of rewriting the histories of well-known contemporaries. While Steamboy's premise is relatively complex, Miyazaki approaches world-building from a simpler concept: what if Jonathon Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels, in which a flying island named Laputa is visited) wasn't a fictional writer but actually a researcher? The movie seems to be built on these hypothetical situations, with a number of the flying machines seemingly based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The story itself is also relatively simple compared to other Miyazaki presentations; the plot is a reworking of a "rat race" concept, where several characters are competing to get to the same place first, and this is also one of the few Ghibli features that uses a specific antagonist. These two traits have triggered criticism for the movie, but if we consider that children are the specified audience for this film, I think it's an understandable change of direction. The storyline is gripping and original enough to justify its two-hour screen-time and there are enough twists and changes of direction to keep even the most hyperactive child interested. Miyazaki has effectively created an "epic" in Laputa, while still focusing on the characters, a feat he doesn't quite recreate in his later Mononoke-hime.
There are very few movies from the mid-eighties that have dated as well as Laputa, largely due to Ghibli's unique style. The huge machines that hold such importance to the overall feature are intricately detailed and surprisingly realistic. What makes Laputa stand out in the Ghibli canon, however, is the impressive scene changes, where we move from a rural, mining scenery to a stunningly beautiful garden to a vast, ruined city made of stone. Each setting is perfect in its own right and I believe this is why the movie is successful as an epic - just as the storyline is constantly changing focus, so does the scenery. Only Ghibli could create such an interesting and realistic fantasy landscape. The robot design in particular was a favourite of mine.
Unfortunately, Laputa's soundtrack has met with controversy with fans over time, due to Disney's adamant stance on it. For the DVD release in 2003, they commissioned Joe Hisaishi (the original composer) to completely rewrite the soundtrack, which in my opinion, changed the emotional emphasis of several scenes. A number of changes included adding music where there had been silence before and erasing the presence of electronic music. I urge fans to seek out the original Japanese version of the soundtrack as the scenes where silence is more prevalent are very atmospheric. The electronic sections of the soundtrack are not particularly missed though, as they seem a little dated now, but again, I feel the absence takes the movie out of its historical context (a film made in the mid-eighties when Asia had a love affair with Electronica) and some of the songs featured in Laputa are among the most memorable and most serene that I have heard in anime, despite their dated edge.
Before I start this section, I must remind everyone that this is a film aimed primarily at children. As such, I've scored this section accordingly: these characters are perfect for children to enjoy. We have evil characters who are blatantly motivated by power and greed (none of this namby-pamby "I only did it to be loved" type of villain that seem to be rife in most films nowadays), we have good characters who you immediately care about and characters who start out as antagonists but slowly become allies. In a sense, this movie caters for every choice of character type. There's the dimwitted, hotheaded, greed-driven General: noble but naïve Pazu: innocent but brave Sheeta: scary and power-hungry Muska... Miyazaki successfully creates memorable characters to the point where a minor character like Old Man Pom, who has less than ten minutes screen time, can still stick in your mind after watching the two-hour movie. I also feel that the characterization of the robots, who never speak a word, is done spectacularly; Miyazaki pitches them the right side of sentimental while highlighting their devastating power.
I realize I'm probably going to receive a lot of grief for this score, but Laputa truly deserves it. It's a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, and no matter how many times I watch it, I always enjoy the twist of events. There are some scenes that really stand out visually, like the scene where they fly through the Dragon's Nest, or their first glimpses of Laputa on landing. Where this anime movie really shines though, is in creating an alternative fantasy world that is utterly believable and completely enthralling, and I feel that this is the attribute that has made Miyazaki so popular, both in Japan and internationally. He always instills an epic tradition in his features (as can be seen with the later, more ostentatious Mononoke-hime) and only its age has denied this great film a perfect score. Well worth its extended length and less of a slowburn movie than some of Miyazaki's other "greats".
Legends tell of a floating island in the sky known as Laputa, upon which is rumoured to be treasure beyond a person’s wildest dreams. Sheeta is an orphan girl who is being hunted down because of her necklace, a rare Levistone, which legend says will lead the way to Laputa. One day she is saved by Pazu, a miner apprentice and also an orphan, and together they set out to escape from her would-be captors. Unfortunately, their friendship must go through endless trials in their quest to hide Laputa's location. What is Sheeta’s mysterious legacy, and what hidden motives do Sheeta’s enemies have in regards to finding Laputa?