A young boy and a girl with a magic crystal must race against pirates and foreign agents in a search for a legendary floating castle.
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It is with great joy and comfort as an avid Studio Ghibli fan that I have witnessed the Japanese giants’ exposure in the West expand considerably over the course of the last few years. Whilst there have always been a lucky and select few savouring any new Ghibli release, it has only really been since the release of the sublime Spirited Away in 2001 that Western audiences have begun to take notice of the house of Totoro and the genius work from the minds of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and co. Now, as the US and Europe see the vast majority of Ghibli theatrical releases get the DVD treatment, it means titles such as the splendid Laputa: Castle in the Sky are reaching whole new audiences and enchanting children and adults alike with their memorable characters, nostalgic cel animation, beautiful scoring and soaring imagination.
It is unfortunate, then, that the same cannot be said for the antagonists of Laputa. As well as the stereotypical military aggressors (evil army generals, sergeants and the like), the principle villain of the film is Muska, voiced competently but unspectacularly by Mark Hamill (compared to say, his voice-over work as The Joker), who strangely sidles away from the Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli norm of having ambivalent and complex villains, and is rather an aggressive and decidedly evil force from the beginning right through to the end. When compared to the more complicated Ghibli villains such as Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke and Yubaba/Zeniba in Spirited Away, it seems that with Muska, Laputa becomes one of the few films in the studios catalogue to feature a fairly archetypal greed and power hungry villain with little-to-no redeeming features, qualities or moral choices. Some audiences looking for a more simplified case of who is right and who is wrong will no doubt appreciate having a clear-cut villain though, particular younger viewers.
However, only the most cynical and critical out there are likely to hold this against Laputa, and in truth you’ll have little time to sit back and critique the black-and-white nature of its villain – there’s far too much on show and it all moves at a very brisk pace. At one moment the film is on an airship siege, then a barnstorming railroad chase, then a tense prison escape complete with spectacularly animated explosions and pyrotechnics, then soon after a near-disaster in a sky storm. All this happens at an almost dizzying pace, with Laputa easily being one of the fastest paced of Miyazaki’s films, and the rate at which we are introduced to new locations and set-pieces is at times almost awe-inspiring. That every moment, location and character is lavished with the signature love and attention to minute detail that the studio is so praised and beloved for makes this feat of adventurous, exciting storytelling all that bit more remarkable, especially when considering this is a film over 20 years old.
In summary, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is quintessential Studio Ghibli fare, and that alone is high praise indeed. Compared to the more sedate outings such as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Laputa is a much faster paced and exhilarating outing, a real whimsical flight of fantasy and a memorable adventure to be savoured by audiences of any age. It features a cast of mostly rounded, believable and highly likeable characters, beautiful cel-drawn animation, and I’ve not even gone into the brilliance of Joe Hisaishi’s eloquent, beautiful soundtrack. If you’re after a slice of family entertainment which entertains without patronising, and one that you’re likely to watch over and over again, then Laputa: Castle in the Sky, as one of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s finest pieces, comes highly recommended.