The Hiyao Miyazaki-penned and directed Castle In the Sky (released here previously as Laputa: Castle In the Sky) is the quintessential version of the master animator's adventure-minded films (versus the quieter or at least less action-packed fantasies in his filmography). Between this, Nausicaa, and Princess Mononoke (both of which need Blu releases here immediately), you couldn't ask for a better animated triple feature of smart, thematically rich animated films out of Japan.
Taking place in a world of massive flying machines, Castle In the Sky follows Sheeta, a little girl with a necklace that allows her to defy gravity, and Pazu, a boy from a small mining community obsessed with finding the fabled floating city of Laputa. Both pirates led by Dola and the Army under the mysterious, possibly unbalanced Muska want to find Laputa and the treasures that are rumored to be contained there. This plot takes Castle In the Sky's action from beneath the ground to the skies in a gorgeously-rendered adventure.
Now here's why it's so good.
First, here's why we're always heaping praise upon Miyazaki: he knows his characters and he knows how to get us on the heroes' side practically from the first time we see them. Sheeta is a sad little girl on an airship, surrounded by men with guns. But Miyazaki when Dola (Cloris Leachman in the English dub) invades the ship with her band of pirates, Miyazaki shows us Sheeta (Anna Paquin) is brave as she climbs out of a window and would rather risk a 10,000 foot drop rather than be captured again. And the first time we meet Pazu, we know that he's good and kind, his first instinct on seeing a floating girl fall to Earth is to help her, his second, to get back to work at his shift in the mine. Later, our writer-director will know how to wring sympathy out of you with a flaming robotic giant, one of many compellingly-designed mechanical creations in Castle In the Sky.
Then there are his villains, starting with Dola who isn't quite as horrible as she likes to pretend (but as greedy), and her band of pirates who find sympathies with the kids' cause. Mark Hamill does his level best to make Muska the kind of bad guy you want to hiss at from the comfort of your chair. He has plans within his plans involving the floating city and he's what you might call "a piece of work."
The score is by frequent Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi (Princess Mononoke, How's Moving Castle, and live-action Oscar winner Departures). Maybe it's because of the use of flutes and percussion but his work and the film as a whole put me in the mind of Mysterious Cities of Gold, itself a production concerned with kids attempting to find a lost city.
Audio and Video
Wow, this movie is vibrant on Disney's new disc. The colors are rich, and either the movie was given some kind of overhaul or the original materials are simply well-preserved, this is effectively a pristine picture. There are some minor, almost undetectable specks here and there and some natural grain in darker interior scenes, but hardly noticeable and definitely lacking in any impact on your viewing experience.
The on the sound front, this is a 5.1 disc and the audio quality matches the visual quality, with great separation between the channels, with the score providing subtle backing to the zooming, high-flying front, rear, and center action.
The disc opens with an optional introduction by Pixar chief John Lasseter who's a huge cheerleader for Miyazaki's films. I'm assuming this is the same intro from the 2010 DVD. There's also a gallery of the original Japanese storyboards as well as seven featurettes running at about two to three minutes each inside the production and Studio Ghibli. The most enlightening of these is a chat with producer and Studio Ghibli CEO Toshio Suzuki who recounts meeting a prickly Miyazaki after the failure of the Lupin feature Castle of Cogliostro, and how an attempt to get an interview with the animator resulted in a job with the studio.
Castle In the Sky is available on Blu-ray now from Disney.