Castle In The Sky was the first movie proper from Studio Ghibli. Released in 1986 and directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind), Castle In The Sky sets many of the standards that the studio would later capitalise on. With gorgeous visuals, thrilling action, and a knockout score courtesy of Joe Hisaishi, Castle In The Sky is a sweeping adventure of a story.
Set in a steampunk infused world of flying machines and sky pirates, Pazu’s life is turned upside down when a young girl floats down out of the sky. Little does he know that she has just escaped both shady government agents and marauding pirates who are chasing her for her mysteriously magical amulet that legend says will point the way to the lost flying city of Laputa.
The aforementioned young girl is Sheeta, who suffers somewhat from action movie female in distress syndrome. Whilst Sheeta and Pazu quickly form a strong (non-romantic) friendship, her character is defined by her usefulness as a plot device and her need to be rescued. However, the same can be said for Pazu. Although he has been obsessed with Laputa since his father snapped a blurry picture (and was ridiculed for it), his motivation is also boiled down to a post-it stamped ‘save the girl’.
So if characterisation is not what we are coming to Castle In The Sky for, what’s the draw? Simply this: spectacle. Miyazaki cuts strongly from the 80s action-adventure cloth here and there is an Indiana Jones swashbuckling adventure vibe running through the movie. Our core characters lurch from one life or death scrape to another and all in pursuit of a mythical ‘thing’ that may prove more dangerous than anyone can realise. The antagonist, Muska, is a classic 80s ‘twirling moustache’. He has the usual power hungry evil guy motivation that lacks subtlety but certainly keeps things exciting.
The steampunk aesthetic infuses the movie with delightfully quaint flying machines leading all the way up to the ancient but devastatingly powerful Laputa itself. Miyazaki’s imagination runs riot with all sorts of satisfying aerial devices. The sky pirates, as led by a fantastic larger than life matriarch Dola, soon become comedy foil.
Dola’s gaggle of sons bicker and flex muscles but also cheer when the concept of cake comes up, giving them a collective fun factor. Once Pazu and Sheeta essentially join the gang and the setting changes to the airship they call home, Miyazaki’s love of animating flight is let loose. Wings slice through giant clouds like water and gift a sense of heft to air battles. Pazu and Sheeta’s tiny glider being swallowed by a ginormous storm is all the more tense due to the loving care spent on the animation.
All in all the movie is a bit too long. It has a great opening, some great set pieces, and some wonderful moments of peace. Sure, the magical destructive power of Laputa is exciting, but the movie's potential shines through better as Pazu and Sheeta spend a few moments alone and exploring. Iconic giant robots tend to long forgotten gardens whilst forest critters bound about, completely unaware of their airborne fate or hunted status.
As the debut feature for a new studio the need to make an immediate commercial hit was understandable. Castle In The Sky goes all out for the thrilling action which makes for a great movie for all the family to throw back popcorn to. Miyazaki’s later movies showcase a growing maturity and ultimately are richer experiences, but for huge slabs of feel-good fun then Castle In The Sky is still a go-to movie over 30 years later.