Castle in the Sky (VHS, 2003, Widescreen) Reviews
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Castle in the Sky (VHS, 2003, Widescreen)

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Castles in the sky are a worthwhile pursuit after all

Dec 28, 2003 (Updated Dec 28, 2003)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent movie, good dub, great sound and picture quality.

Cons:Mediocre extras, minor flaws in dub, dated animation, maybe too intense for small children.

The Bottom Line: This is an excellent rental or's one of the best animated movies made during the 1980s, if not the 20th century. Watch it once and you'll be hooked.

Back in 1986, a group of animators who'd just finished animating Rankin & Bass's The Last Unicorn got together with veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki to found a new studio: Studio Ghibli. Named for a hot, dry desert wind, Studio Ghibli proceeded to take the anime world by storm with a string of hit animated movies that garnered Miyazaki a worldwide fan following—including among the ranks of Disney animators.

One of the first of these movies was Laputa: Castle in the Sky, based very loosely off the sky kingdom described in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In this exciting adventure tale, a girl named Sheeta and a boy named Pazu are on the run from air pirates, the military, and a cadre of shadowy government agents in dark glasses. They have with them a blue pendant that holds the key to the legendary wealth and power of a lost sky kingdom called Laputa—and Muska, the head of those agents, wants it at any cost.

Castle in the Sky presents an engaging look at an alternate earth where great dirigibles share the sky with steam-powered airplanes, where sky pirates armed with grenade launchers use dragonfly-like personal airships to raid passenger liners while far below beleaguered mining folk try to eke out a living in mines that have been almost entirely worked out. It is replete with a cast of colorful characters, including Dola the air pirate and her gaggle of sons, the mysterious Muska, and the stalwart mining people of Pazu's village. And it has an exciting story to tell—essentially the entire movie is one long chase sequence, with three or four brief interruptions. The animation is slightly dated, but still very good, especially for its day.

I could go on at great length about Miyazaki's habit of creating "villains" who turn out not to be so bad after all, his great love of flying which underlies many of the movie's sequences, and the environmentalism implicit in all of his movies, but whole books could be written about those. Suffice it to say that Castle in the Sky is an exciting thrill ride from start to finish for both adults and children (though some scenes, especially near the end, may be too intense for viewers younger than 10 or so; if it were MPAA rated, it would probably be at least PG).

It took seventeen years after its first release for Castle in the Sky to find its way to American DVD, but arrive it finally has thanks to Disney (who nonetheless trimmed the "Laputa" from its name, since "la puta" is a Spanish obscenity—intentionally chosen by Swift but not known by Miyazaki). Disney has provided both the original language version and a new English language dub (as well as a French language dub) in a nice two-disc package.

The video image is presented in an anamorphic-enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen (with a noticeable amount of "windowboxing" to the left and right to cut down on TV overscan image loss), and seems to be a very good quality transfer. Colors are vibrant, and there don't seem to be many digital artifacts that I can see (though the film itself does show its age in a few places). Audio is also good—the Dolby 2.0 Japanese soundtrack sounds better than it ever did on any of my old fansub copies, and the Dolby 5.1 English dub sounds excellent. Two different subtitle tracks are provided: a closed-caption track for the English dub and a literal translation subtitle track for the Japanese version. (To compare dub to original, try watching the dub with the translation subtitle script on.)

Speaking of the dub, Disney has done another first-rate job on matching English voices to Japanese mouth movements, and of choosing English voice actors who are fairly close to the Japanese originals. Cloris Leachman was practically born to play Dola, Mark Hamill munches on the scenery as Muska in much the same way the Japanese voice actor did in the original version, and Anna Paquin brings both vulnerability and inner strength to her part as Sheeta. There are a few places where dialogue has been moved away from the translation, and a couple of voices that could stand to be better (in particular, James Van Der Beek's Pazu sounds about ten years older than he's supposed to be), but on the whole, it is a creditable dub, and one to which I do not mind listening.

One other thing that bears mentioning about the dub is that, to go along with the redub, Disney asked original composer Joe Hisaishi to rescore the movie, adding the backing of a full symphony orchestra and reducing the moments of music-free "silence" in the film (since apparently American audiences don't deal with lack of music very well). In most places, this new score works fairly is still Hisaishi, after all. The only really jarring moment for me was Pazu's trumpet solo, which was unaccompanied in the Japanese version but became the centerpiece of a totally unnecessary orchestral version in the English.

The disc's extras are a bit of a mixed bag. There are only about four of them (if you don't count the dozen or so trailers for other Disney and Miyazaki movies, which I don't): a gushing introduction by John Lasseter of Pixar about how amazingly cool Miyazaki is (and which I usually skip when watching the movie), a 5-minute featurette with a few of the English voice actors talking about the dubbing process and how they look at their characters, four minutes of Japanese movie trailers (subtitled, which is a nice touch), and the contents of the second disc.

The second disc duplicates the contents of the second disc in the Japanese sets; it contains the entire English and Japanese audio tracks of the movie, set to a slide show of all the storyboards for the movie. That's's the entire movie in sketch format. I'll grant that it's nice that it's there, but I find myself wishing there were more featurettes and documentaries (as was the case on the Spirited Away DVD) instead of the movie all over again as a slide show. I mean, the storyboards are interesting to glance at, but if I were going to spend two whole hours watching the movie, I'd watch the original.

As for the other extras, they're nice as far as they go (although the Lasseter intro rapidly loses its replay value after seeing it for the first time) but they're really just fluff. It would have been nice to have something meaty like an audio commentary by a Miyazaki scholar...but then again, the fact that I can even have this DVD at all is something worth celebrating.

Recommend this product? Yes

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Hayao Miyazaki's CASTLE IN THE SKY is a rousing adventure that follows an orphan named Sheeta as she eludes the clutches of a secret agent named Muska...
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