Thursday, November 18, 2010

Film Review: Castle in the Sky

"Castle in the Sky" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

What a welcome treat it is to watch a Hayao Miyazaki animated film. The great Japanese animator is one of my favorite filmmakers. He is responsible for my late interest in animation and the man behind two of my all time favorite animated films; "Spirited Away" (2002) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005). "Castle in the Sky" (1986, though released in the U.S. on DVD in 2003) is one of the great master's best works.

Watching a Miyazaki film is so radically different from the animated films we get in America by Pixar and Dreamworks. There are no talking donkeys, toys, fishes or any other wild animals here. Just people. The characters in a Miyazaki film are not the wise-cracking sassy figures we find in American animation. They don't make pop culture references and sexual innuendos which go over children's heads. And best of all Miyazaki doesn't make CGI animated films. His animation is hand drawn.

Since I've been watching quite a few Pixar and Dreamworks movies I noticed Miyazaki's movies, particularly "Castle in the Sky" seem to move slower. The pace is much different here, more relaxed. You can also say that about live action foreign films when compared to American movies. The rhythm is different. Same goes for animated films too I guess. This is despite the fact "Castle in the Sky" is actually an adventure story.

"Castle in the Sky" starts off with a thrilling heist sequences. A gang of thugs, led by a mother, (voiced in the American version by Cloris Leachman) and her sons, hijack a military plane which has a young princess, Sheeta (Anna Paquin) on board. The thugs want to kidnap her because of a special necklace she wears. It is also because of that necklace the military has her in their custody along with a secret agent, Col. Muska (Mark Hamill). Sheeta manages to escape by jumping out of the plane. It seems certain the young princess has fallen to her death but then the magical powers of the necklace is revealed. It shields Sheeta from danger as it softens her blow by making her float in the air and gently land. She falls into the arms of a miner's assistant, Pazu (James Van Der Beek). Once the princess lands in this small mining town so does the gang of thugs and Col. Muska.

Pazu quickly figures out all of these people are after Sheeta (whom he doesn't know is a princess yet) and concludes it must be because of the necklace. Now Pazu has decided to act as Sheeta's guardian. There are quite a few exciting chase scenes planted throughout the movie. But Miyazaki also finds ways to inject humor into the story. But it is not the kind of vulgar humor of "Shrek" (2001) which feels inappropriate. In this movie the humor stems from the character's personalities and the situations in which they find themselves.

There is also room for a serious message. Miyazaki is something of an environmentalist. Each one of his brilliant films has a message about humans relationship to the Earth and their destruction of nature. "Castle in the Sky", which was Miyazaki's third film, is no different. But it can also be read as a warning of the industrial age. The movie takes place around the early 1900s. Technology within itself is not bad but when bad people want to use technology for power they hurt the land. A civilization must be fueled by love and kindness, not only for nature but for mankind as well, not power.

You see the necklace which Sheeta wears is believed to have come from a mythical floating island in the sky called Laputa. The people who lived on the island where said to have developed advance technology which would make them able to rule the world below. It is that power the thugs and Col. Muska are after.

Many times after I watch a Miyazaki movie I often feel his films are really more so for adults. Miyazaki makes very complex films. They have serious messages and he treats his stories in a very mature way. Because there is animation and young characters and action this may please some of the younger viewers but is it adults who will fully comprehend the movie's motives.

I suppose this has to do with a cultural difference in the way we Americans view animation and the way it is viewed in Japan. Animation is big business in Japan. But it is not just for children. Some of Miyzaki's movies are among the highest grossing in Japan. In Japan they also make sexually explicit animated movies. Animation clearly serves more than one purpose. Great stories can be told through animation. Just because a movie is animated that does not mean the film has to play down to its audience. It doesn't have to avoid making meaningful statements.

"Castle in the Sky" is an intelligent movie. A movie which deserves to be taken seriously. Hayao Miyazaki's first movie was "Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro" (1979) it is the only movie among all of his feature films which doesn't exactly fit in with the rest. It is a good story, also involving thieves, but doesn't make Miyazaki's usual commentaries. He really came into his own with "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984, which I have reviewed) and continued down a similar path with this film. In some ways I actually prefer "Castle in the Sky". This movie is more magical. I take more delight in the characters. It is also, in my opinion, more kid friendly.

Because of all the CGI animated films I have been watching lately I forgot how special hand drawn animation is. I wish there were more American animated films done this way still. There is something charming about it. It takes great artistry to do it. It is beautiful to look at it. Many times I am more amazed looking at a Miyazaki movie than any special effects in today's movies.

"Castle in the Sky" is a wonderful adventure movie with an important social message. That message might go over the head's of children but there is still a lot for them to enjoy. The movie may also be a bit long for them. It clocks in at two hours. So maybe you should show this to slightly older children. Still the movie feels epic. It would make a wonderful introduction into Miyazaki's work. This is a real achievement. One of Miyazaki's best films.