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Castle in the Sky DVD Review (2010 Edition)

Castle in the Sky: 2010 DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Castle in the Sky (Tenkuno Shiro Rapyuta - Laputa: Castle in the Sky)

Japanese Theatrical Release: August 2, 1986 / US Theatrical Release: April 1, 1989 / US Video Premiere: April 15, 2003 / Running Time: 124 Minutes / Rating: PG

Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki

English Voice Cast: Anna Paquin (Sheeta), James Van Der Beek (Pazu), Cloris Leachman (Dola), Mark Hamill (Muska), Richard Dysart (Uncle Pom), Jim Cummings (General), John Hostetter (Boss), Michael McShane (Charles), Mandy Patinkin (Louie), Andy Dick (Henri)

Japanese Voice Cast: Keiko Yokozawa (Sheeta), Mayumi Tanaka (Pazu), Kotoe Hatsui (Dola), Nou Terada (Muska), Fujio Tokita (Uncle Pom), Ichirτ Nagai (General), Hiroshi Ito (Mentor), Takumi Kamiyama (Charles), Yoshito Yasuhara (Louis), Sukekiyo Kameyama (Henri)

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (Japanese, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English translation, French; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
DVD Release Date: March 2, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s) / Black Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover

Buy from Amazon.com • Buy 2003 DVD from Amazon.com

By Aaron Wallace

Hayao Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985, just in time for the release of his second feature as both writer and director: Castle in the Sky. Like many other Ghibli films, Castle eluded American audiences (a questionable in-flight dub, later limitedly released to theaters, notwithstanding) until Disney commissioned an all-new English dub and released it stateside.
With Mouse marketing behind them, Miyazaki's films have made him arguably the most famous anime auteur in the West.

Approaching its silver anniversary, Castle in the Sky isn't among the most celebrated of the Ghibli canon, at least not by English audiences, but the film nevertheless enjoys nigh-universal critical acclaim -- and for good reason. Here is an imaginative and elaborate story told with maturity and heart. Creativity and depth are nothing new for animation but the scope that Miyazaki takes on in this narrative sets it apart from many equally excellent Disney movies that opt for simplicity in the story department.

This is the story of Sheeta, a young girl pursued by two adversarial parties: a secret government agency headed by the nefarious Colonel Muska on the one hand and a band of sibling pirates led by their mother, Dola, on the other. Both are after a pendant Sheeta inherited from her grandmother and wears around her neck. The pendant has mysterious powers that include glowing an eerie blue and keeping Sheeta afloat in the air when she falls. These properties seem to have some link with Laputa, a fabled ancient city that is said to float somewhere in the sky.

The blue pendant around Sheeta's neck proves useful when it keeps her afloat instead of letting her fall to her death. Of similar ages and heights, Pazu and Sheeta become friends and allies.

In running from her would-be captors, Sheeta comes across a mine worker around her same age, a young man named Pazu. As it turns out, Pazu has both a working knowledge of and a family connection to the legend of Laputa. The two team up to avoid the military agents and the pirates, eventually seeking out the floating city for themselves.

Along the way, alliances shift, guns fire, and things explode. Had it been made in America, this is the kind of story one might sooner expect from a big-budget, live-action summer tentpole -- though it would be the rare blockbuster that rewards the thoughtful viewer with more than just eye candy. There's intelligent commentary going on, Miyazaki's fixation on flight and engineering apt to inspire conversation about technology and ambition in the same way that Frankenstein and other literary classics have.

Still, like an overblown action flick, Castle in the Sky comes dangerously close to being overlong. The two hours-plus runtime gives the movie ample time to tell its grand tale -- probably a little too much time. There's much to be said in the movie's favor but on a first viewing, one is likely to start looking for scenes that could have been cut before the finale. Most of those are chase scenes that simply go on too long, especially given how many of them there are. In all that time, some of the characters (like Sheeta) remain fairly unremarkable.

The elderly Dola is on the move, in search of Sheeta's crystal pendant. Looking down at the crystal produces a rather noticeable beam of blue light directly above Colonel Muska's eyes.

That said, I'm willing to accept the excess in exchange for the richness that Castle otherwise provides. In Disney's English dub, the score is beautiful but also very active, much more active than it was in the original Japanese before Disney cranked up the volume and added new effects. When not comparing the two, though, I can't say that Disney's "enhanced" score substantially detracts. The English voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Cloris Leachman steals the show as Dola. Mark Hamill is also reliably effective as the villain, Muska. The two leads, though, are less welcome. As Sheeta and Pazu, Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek are cold and remote from their characters. It's also worth noting that Disney's dub makes a few notable and inexplicable changes to the original Japanese dialogue.

Castle in the Sky first and last came to DVD in 2003. This second release arrives in a new Studio Ghibli DVD collection (three Miyazaki movies were released concurrently), carrying over all of the previous supplements (save for a few outdated previews) and adding quite a few more.

The castle isn't the only thing in the sky; these air pirates are up there too. Whether fat or thin, all the soldiers in Colonel Muska's army must have a mustache.


Castle in the Sky is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Picture quality is surprisingly awful for a film of such relative recency and popularity. Unwanted artifacts and grain permeate the picture and occasional edge enhancement shows up as well. Color vibrancy is also sometimes inconsistent.
Most viewers will probably be able to sit a distance back from their TV and tune out most of the visual annoyances but one can and should expect better from a second DVD release in 2010.

There are three audio tracks available: Disney's English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1, the original Japanese audio in 2.0 Dolby Surround, and a French dub in 2.0 Dolby Surround as well. The English track unquestionably sounds the best, even though the rear channels go unused for long stretches of time. The Japanese track satisfies, though it is noticeably less active than the English one. Even in a language I can't understand, though, I preferred the lead characters' voices in their original performances.

There are also three subtitle tracks: English for the Hearing Impaired (mostly matching Disney's English dub), English (more accurately translated directly from the original Japanese), and French. All of these options give you a whole host of viewing possibilities -- the three most interesting being English audio plus English-from-Japanese-translation subtitles, Japanese audio plus English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles, and Japanese audio plus the English-from-Japanese-translation subtitles. None of these is definitively superior for English viewers. Those who really want to see this movie from every viable angle may want to watch multiple times or make extensive use of DVD's nifty toggling features.

Without a copy of the 2003 DVD to reference, I can't compare the audio/video presentation on that disc to this one. Given descriptions of the 2003 disc, the other new 2010 Ghibli collection DVDs' reviews, and the generally subpar presentation of Castle in the Sky on this new release, I'd wager there's little difference between the two, if any at all.

Sheeta appears in rough sketch form in Disc 2's full storyboard presentation of the film. Hayao Miyazaki reflects on the film in three new short featurettes.


Disc One has just one bonus feature, an introduction from John Lasseter (0:50), who reflects very briefly on Castle in the Sky and the man who made it.
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The introduction plays automatically but is also accessible from the disc's lonesome Bonus Features menu. This same intro featured on the last Castle DVD.

Disc Two's bonus materials begin with Original Japanese Storyboards. They are what they sound like, presented in their feature-length entirety, and set to your choice of the original Japanese audio track or Disney's English track (English plays by default). This will be similar to any other complete storyboard viewing you've taken on and I can't imagine you'll sit through the whole thing unless your devotion to this movie and its art is undying (to those people, who are certainly out there, the storyboards are expectedly simple but still very neat to see). The same storyboards appeared on the previous DVD release.

The disc's second listing, "The World of Ghibli", is further divided into two sections: Behind the Studio and Enter the Lands. Everything below is new to this DVD release except for the trailer reel and the voice actor featurette.

Behind the Studio consists of lots of very short featurettes that would mostly have worked much better pieced together as one lengthier behind-the-scenes interview piece. In the first three segments, Hayao Miyazaki talks generally about the memories and motives that led him to create Castle in the Sky and its characters. Those segments are: "The World of Laputa" (2:20), "Creating Castle in the Sky" (3:42), and "Character Sketches" (2:41).

Producer Toshio Suzuki recalls the birth of his longtime collaboration with Miyazaki-san in the featurette "Producer's Perspective: Meeting Miyazaki." Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek didn't want to wait for his life to be over. He wanted to know right then what dubbing anime was like. Castle in the Sky provides a taste of this month's other new Ghibli DVDs, as they also do.

After that, producer Toshio Suzuki gets some screentime in "Producer's Perspective: Meeting Miyazaki" (3:15). He tells a very interesting story about the unlikely forging of his long partnership with Miyazaki. In the next segment, "Scoring Miyazaki" (7:19),
Suzuki introduces composer Joe Hisaishi, who talks about what he hoped to achieved with his scores for this and other Ghibli movies.

"Original Japanese Trailers" (4:11) pieces together quite a few promotional spots and trailers for Castle in the Sky, all of them in Japanese but subtitled in English. They're pretty fun.

Disney's English voice cast takes the spotlight in "Behind the Microphone" (4:13). James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill, and Mandy Patinkin provide in-studio interviews from the time of the dub's production. No word from Anna Paquin, Jim Cummings, or Andy Dick.

Finally, we get a quick preview of the World of Ghibli sections found on the concurrently released Studio Ghibli DVDs. "Creating Ponyo" (3:58), "Creating My Neighbor Totoro" (3:00), and "Creating Kiki's Delivery Service" (2:28) all mirror Castle's "Creating" segment discussed above.

All of the World of Ghibli interviews are quite excellent, the subjects delving into seriously meaningful analysis of their work on the film and with Studio Ghibli in general, even in the short time they have.

The Enter the Lands sub-section is a kind of virtual map on which one can see many Ghibli movies and select four of them for further exploration. The first is Castle in the Sky, for which a probing personality quiz is offered. The other three movies instead offer what amounts to a new trailer and then several screens of interactive "click-and-watch", game-like play. Those movies are Kiki's, Totoro, and Ponyo. Presumably, the non-selectable Ghibli movies will be available for this kind of sampling on other future DVDs. The idea, I suppose, is that once you buy all the DVDs in this new Ghibli DVD collection, your little movie map will be complete. That's not really a goal worth pursuing, given that this is time-consuming and highly promotional, even if a little intriguing at first glance. The Castle quiz is exclusive to this disc (each new Ghibli DVD seems to have an exclusive film-related personality quiz).

Answer the questions to figure out what "Castle in the Sky" character you're most like. This old miner is here to help you choose between settling in for two hours of storyboards and diving into the brave new World of Ghibli.

Disc One launches with previews for Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition, Toy Story 3, and the new Studio Ghibli DVD Collection. The Sneak Peeks menu adds the promos for the following to that list: Toy Story and Toy Story 2 Blu-rays, The Princess and the Frog, Ponyo, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, the Disney Friends for Change project, genuine DVDs, Disney Movie Rewards, and Disney Blu-ray.

The main menu screen is simple but tasteful, some very understated animation putting stills with an excerpt from the score. The sub-menus are still and muted in appearance but accompanied by music.

Both discs are housed inside a standard black keepcase, which is itself inside a textured cardboard slipcover. The cover art carries the new blue Studio Ghibli collection banner at the top and recreates the famous scene in which Sheeta floats from the sky down to Pazu. There's a very sleek, classy look to it. Inside the case is a lithograph matching that same design, a Disney Blu-ray flyer, and a Disney Movie Rewards Magic Code.

As in Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", the island in the sky is named Laputa, a fact Disney drops from the title to avoid offending Spanish speakers. Sheeta and Pazu stay brave in the face of danger.


Castle in the Sky is more conventional than other Ghibli fare but less conventional than most other feature animation.
The story here is epic, elaborate, and told in grandiose style. While you've probably seen a similar plot before, you're not likely to have seen it told in such a vividly imaginative way. Miyazaki spends too much time on action scenes and too much time on the movie in general, but the creativity on display handily compensates for that.

The new DVD release retains all of the 2003 set's bonus features and adds a whole slew of new, very worthwhile ones. Picture quality remains unsatisfactory, however. Only devoted Ghibli fans will deem this upgrade-worthy but even despite the flaws in its presentation, I can easily suggest this DVD for those who don't own it yet. Notably, Disney chose not to release the film on Blu-ray. One would expect that to happen at some point down the road, but it could be a while.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy the 2003 DVD

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Related Reviews:
New: Kiki's Delivery Service • Ponyo (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) • My Neighbor Totoro • Old Dogs • Planet 51 • Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki: Nausicaδ of the Valley of the Wind • Porco Rosso • Spirited Away • Howl's Moving Castle
Produced by Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli: Whisper of the Heart • The Cat Returns • Pom Poko • My Neighbors the Yamadas
1980s Films: Labyrinth (Anniversary Edition) • Flight of the Navigator • The Dark Crystal (Anniversary Edition) •
1980s TV Animation: The Gummi Bears: Volume One • Transformers: The Complete First Season • Smurfs: Season One, Volume Two
Castle in the Sky (Original 2003 DVD)

The English Voice Cast of Castle in the Sky:
James Van Der Beek: Varsity Blues (Deluxe Edition) | Cloris Leachman: The North Avenue Irregulars | Michael McShane: A Bug's Life
Mark Hamill: Freakazoid!: Season 1 • Fantastic Four: The Complete 1994-95 Animated Television Series
Andy Dick: The Lion King II: Simba's Pride • NewsRadio: The Complete Series
Jim Cummings: TaleSpin: Volume 1 • A Goofy Movie • The Jungle Book 2 | Mandy Patinkin: The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary Edition)

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Reviewed March 8, 2010.