This is how you make an action movie that’s smart and exciting while remaining appropriate for older children.
Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky is an epic and dangerous race to find the legendary floating island of Laputa, and it’s a journey defined as much by its remarkable amount of chaos as by its wonderfully established ties of friendship and its somewhat restrained environmental message. This is an amazing film that throws the simpler pacing of Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies completely out the window and instead opts to almost relentlessly surprise the viewer with new sights and events from start to finish.
In with a bang
Following a main-menu theme that’s absolutely gorgeous from the opening notes, the film opens with a small aircraft sending out additional two-person crafts that look like dragonflies. A young girl seated in a much larger craft stares out her window, ill at ease, as she is offered food and water. The dragonflies approach her window. The riders are pirates, and they are armed.
The pirates invade the larger craft, gassing the cockpit and attempting to take the crew hostage, but they are fought off in a hectic gunfight; the shots go offscreen, but the film definitely makes its point even without visible deaths. This excellent action sequence sets an awesome mood for the film to follow, as a man tries to send out what sounds like a distress signal while the little girl picks up a bottle and prepares to hit him with it. Before she can do so, however, the room is then gassed, but she doesn’t stay around to await her fate. She has a special crystal, and she climbs on the outside of the aircraft in order to escape. She falls.
The film slows down–but not by much.
After a gorgeous opening-credits montage set to beautiful music, the girl’s magic crystal slows her descent as she heads toward a small town. A young worker manages to catch her as her magic turns itself off, and there’s a really funny moment of black comedy as her now relevant weight knocks him over. The boy can’t afford to stick around for long, as his boss is losing ground against malfunctioning steam pipes, but he (Pazu) soon gets to know the girl (Sheeta) and is absolutely a gentleman toward her. Before he says a word to Sheeta, he takes action to care for her well-being, and even if he’s just a little bit forward, she’s more than happy to introduce herself to him.
Pazu and Sheeta immediately establish themselves as likable and kindhearted characters, even if the roles they take later in the film tend to feel a bit cliché, and their opening dialogue gives the audience a lot of good story information–her necklace is a family heirloom, she says, and he is building a plane to find Laputa. It does seem somewhat odd for Sheeta, who was just in danger, to explain so much of herself to someone she just met, no matter how well he treats her (and this isn’t the only time she does so, even if it’s for the audience’s benefit). It must be said, nonetheless, that Pazu consistently and admirably looks out for his new friend’s best interests.
Their newfound peace doesn’t last long, as the pirates come back, this time in an old-fashioned automobile instead of personal fliers (the technology in this film isn’t always easy to “date,” and the large gaps in knowledge across cultures in the story only complicate things), sending the children fleeing. The town they run through is lovely and is full of activity, but the movie’s delightfully fast pacing has the unfortunate side effect of making individual visual scenes hard to appreciate for very long. A subsequent mêlée involving a number of the townspeople is played for laughs, not intensity, and even though it quickly becomes a mob as the people rush to the aid of the children, there are no lasting bruises displayed, unlike in Porco Rosso.
By this time Sheeta and Pazu have hopped onto a train and received a warm welcome, even as the pirates resume chasing them with arms (one tosses a stick grenade toward the crowd, which quickly disperses) and with an old-fashioned automobile. This seems out of place in a setting where flying technology on the small and very large scales seems rather common, but while it doesn’t make much sense for the pirates to use land-based vehicles when they could probably have flown, it likely saves money for the townspeople themselves to use a train and not an airship for transporting goods.
Regardless, that train nicely shows off several gorgeous settings, including a beautiful shot of tracks running through what look like multiple tiers of homes cut into the sides of mountains. Said tracks are very soon made the target of many environmental explosions, just before the setting’s morally dubious army shows up (the children are not hurt, and any actual violence against people is typically not shown directly), making this film a marked but very interesting departure from the calmness I’m used to seeing in a Ghibli movie.
Of course there are reasons for all of this.
After Pazu and Sheeta end up explaining their backgrounds to one another inside of a mine, they meet a character who explains the film’s respect-the-earth message in a manner that’s neither subtle nor overly intrusive, and his creative means of telling his story do make for some pretty sights while also helping explain Sheeta’s plot significance. Her necklace is made of a magic mineral whose power rightly belongs to the earth, not to the selfish purposes of those who would look to exploit it, but before the well-intentioned Pazu can use this to find Laputa, he and Sheeta are kidnapped by the army and imprisoned.
Laputa was a legend until a robot dropped from the sky; it’s now in pieces, and the army is now attempting to find the once mythical floating island and to uncover its secrets. A line of dialogue suggests, if I recall, that Laputa was once a superpower and a threat to world peace, but the second possibility, which would have made the army’s motivations more interesting if they were trying to keep said place from once again becoming a danger, isn’t really followed up on. The story might not always make the most sense at the level of individual details, but it’s a ton of fun to watch.
A sequence of several events sees Sheeta and Pazu being rescued, as Pazu forms an unlikely alliance with the pirates (the Dola gang’s matriarch is very cynical about the Army’s motivations for seeking Laputa), while Sheeta’s prison is destroyed by the robot seen earlier in the film, now in working order thanks to a magical spell she uses; though it’s for her protection, she doesn’t know or see what it specifically does. This benevolent but not very discerning robot causes a tremendous amount of damage to its surroundings and their personnel in the name of keeping Sheeta safe, and while it does accomplish its mission, the collateral damage it causes is unnerving. Meanwhile, both the pirates (and Pazu) and Goliath, a massive Army air destroyer, are on their way.
A tragic scene shows the well-meaning robot being visibly destroyed by enemy fire, which I mention in order to inform parents, as this could easily upset children; it’s one of the very few “deaths” explicitly portrayed in the film and not simply implied, and while it may be the only one, the film does a good job of evoking empathy even for an artificial being, shortly before the story becomes a race for Laputa, both for the pirates (and the children) and the army.
Laputa is beautiful. But you know what’s coming.
Laputa is a gorgeous place set to beautiful music, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. The climactic battle involving the children, the pirates, the army, and Laputa’s own immense power produces a series of incredible action sequences, complete with many implied deaths as people are shown falling to their doom. While the story structure itself seems predictable in the most unfortunate ways–Sheeta in particular is put into some unflattering and rather embarrassing circumstances, even as she deals with them wonderfully (almost with Kiki’s level of determination), and one villain doesn’t even bother showing respect or care for the plants that happen to be in his way–the film’s conclusion is still as thoroughly exciting and about as fast-paced as the beginning was. Some scenes, while not excessively dramatic in terms of their mood, might still be very scary for young children: one child, for example, ends up being temporarily held at gunpoint, and the plot itself might be confusing or upsetting to follow as some interactions become more complicated and as more of Laputa’s history is revealed.
The story’s ending itself is mostly satisfactory, even if it feels a bit too happy considering the drastic loss of life (even if villainous life) that just took place. Ultimately, however, even if the story doesn’t always feel as attentive to details as it could have been–I would especially have liked to see a larger variety of actual floating locations, given that they were supposed to form a big part of the setting–the movie makes its intentions and its message clear and is a success on that front. It’s most definitely a success in terms of its intense and exciting action, feeling at times almost like a relatively child-friendly version of something like Akira with regard to pacing. For a Studio Ghibli film that may well be unlike any Studio Ghibli film you’ve ever seen, Castle in the Sky is a fantastic movie that is more than worth your time.