Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)
Read my takes on...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO ******* KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE
- PORCO ROSSO ******* HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
- NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND
If ever an adventure movie got by almost entirely on its comic relief…
Watching CASTLE IN THE SKY draws to mind flicks from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but not in the way you’re expecting it to. To be sure, the story would fit right into a matinee serial of the era; one that perhaps took scenarios from strips like TERRY & THE PIRATES and LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. The fact that the eponymous flying castle, Laputa, has been lifted so loosely from GULLIVER’S TRAVELS with little-to-no remaining connections to the rest of Switf’s satire certainly recalls the literary adaptations of the era and the enormous creative liberties they usually took. And that gets closer to what makes this so evocative of that specific era of filmmaking - - it very uniquely feels like the end product of the studio system assembly back then.
It’s easy to picture this starting out as a straight adventure that was given a punch-up by some script doctor later into pre-production; likely after the producer realized the story was starting to taste too vanilla and needed some sprinkles. The entire plot’s a McGuffin; a simple excuse to put some appealing characters on screen, let them say some cute lines and occasionally drop them into some fun antics. Many, many movies are “guilty” of such, of course, but I haven’t ever seen any revel so blatantly in it outside of Golden Age director Howard Hawks’ filmography. Indeed, much of the time, you feel like you’re simply tagging along with a pint-sized Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant on a date where all these ancient robots, sky pirates and floating castles are just the triappings of a little flirty roleplay.
Really, it feels like to even describe the plot is to take it too seriously.
This proper young lady, Sheeta, dodges a gang of pistol-packing sky pirates by jumping out of a blimp and down into what looks to be certain, freefalling death. Only a mysterious magic charm on her neck eases her descent to a featherlike pace and then this plucky little miner, Pazu, winds up catching her. The pair quickly resume their flight from the pirates (who wear pink tights that make them seem like an absurd, camp vision of the Merry Men from Errol Flynn’s ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) as well as an opposing unit of what at first seem to be government operatives. The unit’s dandy leader, Muska, is pretty certain that Sheeta and her pendent hold the key to the legendary floating castle, Laputa, and all the staggering secrets inside it.
Despite impressive slapstick dodging and maneuvering, Pazu eventually loses Sheeta to Muska for a stretch. The subsequent scenes of interrogation and exposition lay out the mythology of Laputa in a fashion toddling enough to invite speculation that anybody not opting to just tune the mumbo jumbo out or take a bathroom break at this point is the victim of a prank Miyazaki’s pulling on his audience. Around this time, Pazu also discovers that the sky pirates have also inexplicably had Sheeta’s best interests in mind, all along (likely because the same prankish animators must have just realized they were more fun to root for than against.) By then, the only proper recourse is to take the story just as flippantly.
What works against CASTLE IN THE SKY? Well, as mentioned, the concept’s a little unimpressively dated. Even 25 years ago, you’d figure a fantasy would need to bring more to the table than just a floating castle and some slinky robots if it really wanted to capture imaginations. Sheeta also has the usual drawback of amnesiacs leads in that she’s a cipher with very little to define her. That’s fine, though, because Pazu packs enough personality for the two of them.
The pair are a real joy to watch together; startling proof that drawings can actually have more palpable chemistry than a fair number of living, breathing, live-action couples. The sky pirates and their two-fisted, pig-tailed den mother are an absolutely hoot to watch, as well. Their Greek chorus of banter makes every scene they’re in that much more enjoyable and, considering how this was the dub I watched, perhaps it’s another case like YU YU HAKUSHO where the translation team’s addition of snark gives drier material some needed extra color.
Oh, and I’d be sorely remiss not to mention Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping score. His work on NAUSICAA was fair enough, despite some sections where the synth percussion sounded a little like a keyboard's demo mode. Knowing that this was the direct follow-up to that, though, you can’t help but be taken aback by what a profound leap up his compositions make in their dance with the animation.
When the gags are the sprinkles on the vanilla, then this music’s certainly the swirling strawberry syrup, infusing even the plainest scenes with an undeniable sense of whimsy, majesty or danger. If CASTLE IN THE SKY is a treat of empty calories by the end - - a blueberry McGuffin parfait, as it were - - then it’s at least covered with the richest toppings in the parlor.