Laputa, Castle in the Sky is Hayao Miyazaki’s steampunk epic. A tantalizing epic, inspired by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. After a raid on a zeppelin by cartoonish air pirates, the little girl Sheeta falls from a window into the void. She loses consciousness, but a mysterious medallion from the floating city Laputa makes her float as well. She gently floats down, straight into the arms of Pazu, the young son of a miner. The next morning, the air pirates search the village for the girl, and both Sheeta and Pazu take flight.
The first thing about this film that strikes the eye is the amazingly realized steam-powered town in the mountains. While Sheeta and Pazu flee from the chasing pirates, the village moves past. We rush through it by train and on foot. It’s a place full of quaint shone houses and wooden bridges. All locales look gorgeous, with great attention for the natural world. This is typical for director Miyazaki, as is his choice of a young girl as main character and his choice of an old, mercurial woman as witch-like adversary.
Soon however, the story becomes more mysterious. Sheeta’s stone is made from crystal that is very powerful and portentous. Pazu and Sheeta fall into the hands of the army, which is looking for the floating city Laputa, and thinks that Sheeta’s medallion can show the way. Laputa is probably very advanced, because steampunk robots have fallen from the sky. The Laputa robots have since snuck into other films, such as Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
Sheeta as a main character isn’t all that interesting, unfortunately. Maybe I am wrong and she isn’t the focus of the story. She’s a damsel in distress, an “object” around which the story turns, and the boy Pazu is the one taking all the initiative. The strong woman role is taken by “Mama”, the old woman and leader of the pirates. They’re a funny bunch. Mama wonders when her boys will finally grow up, but she still demands to be the leader.
Castle in the Sky is mostly a visually striking film. The landscapes, the cities and fortresses all look larger than life. A large part of the magic is created by composer Joe Hisaishi, who supplied a bewitching score for this film. The castle in the sky itself is a very memorable place. It manages to convey a feeling of melancholy and loss that is really very touching. The reason that the robots have returned in other films is not so much because of their looks, but because they are part of this melancholy experience that the film creates.
The story itself is very full. We move quickly from one place to the next. But the basic friendship or romantic connection between Pazu and Sheeta remains the heart of the film. But this connection doesn’t come out strongly or believable, because their characters are not as developed as they could have been. And as a consequence the film is full of nice imagery and impressive sights of the floating castle and of the evening skies, but I got the impression that it tries to rely too much on those shots, while the emotional impact is not as strong.
The castle Laputa itself causes a stronger emotional reaction than the characters do. It is what everyone remembers about this film. I think that Castle in the Sky falls short of the impact that other Miyazaki movies have because of this, but the story certainly does have an epic vision behind it that is really impressive.