Castle in the Sky was the second offering from Studio Ghibli in 1986 after Valley of the Wind and is the second official movie in the Ghibli canon. It follows the story of Pazu and Sheeta, a young miner boy and a girl who mysteriously falls from the sky, and their desire to find the magical floating city of Laputa, the Castle in the Sky, which seems to have connections to a magical crystal Sheeta carries with her. However, they aren't the only ones interested in the floating city and so begins a race against time for our two heroes to keep Laputa out of the hands of those whose intend to misuse it, while meeting many friends and enemies turned allies along the way.
Okay, before this review starts, I have a confession to make. Along with Princess Mononoke, this is quite possibly my favourite Studio Ghibli film, period. I adore it. I more than adore it. It doesn't matter how many times I watch it, Castle in the Sky never fails to warm my heart and get me smiling like a total idiot. And the fact that this movie was made in 1986 and is still being enjoyed today proves it shows no signs of becoming less enjoyable, less touching, less funny and, most importantly, less beautiful. And I only hope I can manage to carry that over in this review and convince those who haven't seen it yet to do themselves a favour and watch as many times over as I have myself.
The fact that this was animated in 1986 defies belief. The style and character designs haven't dated in the slightest, to the point where if someone told me this was animated a few years ago, I'd honestly believe them. The sheer detail in the backgrounds, from just the village the characters live in the to the Castle in the Sky itself, can only have been a labour of love. The sheer scope of them is breath-taking.
Taking away from that for a second, the character designs are simple yet still adorable and allow for a lot of expression, be it comedic or sorrowful. The comic timing for some scenes and the sheer speed of the animation for it makes the scenes all the more funny, yet it also knows when to slow down for more sombre moments in the story. A special mention goes to the design of the robot, as it reminds me a lot of the forest spirit in the later Princess Mononoke. Even though it never has any dialogue, you can feel the weight and presence of it and you can feel deep sorrow for it despite it only having a few minutes of screentime while also acknowledging its devastating power and strength.
The soundtrack is one of my favourite in all of Ghibli. While the music in almost all Ghibli movies is gorgeous, some of them just have that extra sparkle that only Joe Hisaishi can pull off and this is definitely one of them. One particular track, 'The Destruction of Laputa', is one of the most beautiful I've ever heard. The use of violins and wind instruments give certain events and scenes in the story so much more weight and it also contains one of the best trumpets solos you'll ever hear. Trust me when I say you'll know it when you hear it.
In terms of the voice acting, the sub voices do a very good job all round, particularly Keiko Yokozawa as Sheeta, who handles the emotional scenes of the character very well. For the Disney dub, it's also extremely good. All the voice actors do their job extremely well but the absolute star of this dub is Cloris Leachman as the head of the pirate gang, Dola. Every scene with her is hilarious and she absolutely brings the character to life. Special mention also goes to Mark Hamill for his great over-the-top performance as the villain, Colonel Muska. Both the versions of sub and dub are wonderful so the choice will be down to personal preference as of which version to watch.
The heart of this movie lies with its characters. Our two main characters spend most of the movie in a race to find the Castle in the Sky before our villain, Colonel Muska, gets there before them, while making allies and avoiding being captured along the way. And even when they reach it, they still need to find the strength to protect the floating city that Pazu's father claimed he found years ago, despite nobody believing him.
One of the things I love most about this movie is that it feels more like an experience than a straight-up beginning to end story. And I think this can be broken down to Miazaki's sheer talent for story-telling. The pacing is perfect, the relationships between the characters never feel forced and the narrative flows like water. You feel so immersed in the film that some scenes just bowl you over with the sheer majesty in which they are written or animated. While there's a lot of funny, slapstick moments throughout the tale, there is also a depth and maturity to a lot of scenes and it finds the perfect balance between the two, never feeling disjointed or out of place. One of my favourite scenes is near the middle of the film involving the robot, where all the emotions of both it and Sheeta in this scene can literally be summed up in a look shared between them.
When a character is happy, you can feel they're truly happy. When a character is sad, you can feel their sorrow. And when Pazu and Sheeta finally come across the floating city, the sheer joy of the reactions of the two of them is honestly one of my favourite moments in animation. The expressions, the action of Pazu embracing Sheeta and the beauty of the world around them just sinks in and it gives an indescribable feeling of happiness just watching these two characters embrace. And that's just how the film works. You connect with the emotions of these characters and all the crazy situations they find themselves in and you laugh, smile and even cry along with them. To the point where the overly happy ending just feels so damn good to watch and seeing everyone except the bad guys get exactly what they want makes you feel great to have cheered them on every step of the way.
Sheeta and Pazu are two of the most adorable characters ever created. There, I said it. One thing I always love about Ghibli films is how they write their kid characters and these two are probably my favourite of the bunch. The relationship between the two of them is just perfect. It's not overdone, the friendship between the two of them comes first as opposed to their romance, but both of them are great characters on their own as well. Pazu is stubborn and bold but doesn't always think things through, thinking he can resolve situations on his own. Sheeta, on the other hand, is very timid and gets scared easily but by no means is she weak. Each of them have their strengths and weaknesses and when together, each of them compensates for the shortcomings of the other and therefore helping each other to become stronger. They're a wonderful duo whom I root for every second they're on-screen.
That's not to say that the side characters aren't great either. On the contrary, Dola, the head of the pirate gang, is one of the best and funniest characters I've ever seen. Mother to all the pirates in the gang (seriously), she has an almost psychotic passion to get what she wants and stops at nothing to get it. She may appear to have a strict captain persona but actually has a motherly streak, mostly for Sheeta but her boys as well. Every scene with her makes me laugh and makes me laugh hard (seriously, I can't be the only one that laughs till I'm sore during the chase scene with her gang and Pazu and Sheeta near the beginning of the movie). Everything about her is a joy to watch.
Another mention goes to our villain, Colonel Muska, who is probably one of the few specific antagonists in a Ghibli movie. While he should be just a cliché villain, with only greed as his motivation, he instead proves to be a great diabolical antagonist with just the sheer volume of what he is willing to sacrifice for said greed.
This score may seem like too much but, in my opinion, Castle in the Sky deserves it. While it's not the deepest or most challenging Ghibli movie, I firmly believe it has one of the biggest hearts of gold. Several scenes take my breath away every single time, be it from laughter or awe. The animation, music, story and characters are treated with such love and care from the creators that you can't help but love and care for them also.
It's beautiful, it's heart-warming, it's silly and fun and it's just absolutely timeless. And that is more than enough to show why it, tied with one other, is my favourite Studio Ghibli film. I've gone on about it long enough; see it if you haven't already.