Tech-savvy warlords battle each other in the air while humble farmers toil on the ground. Workers tell tales about huge buildings in the clouds, though most are too afraid to travel outside their village. The villagers rely on a rare crystal whose power can be easily misused for violent purposes. A young, adventure loving princess is one of the few who can harness the power of the crystal, but that doesn’t stop a number of warring factions from attempting to use the mineral for their own selfish needs. One such villain plans to use the crystal to activate a series of long-dormant, hulking robot beasts that are rumored to live in a castle in the sky.
If the plot of Castle in the Sky (1986) sounds a little familiar, it’s because the film is only a slight variation on Hayao Miyazaki’s previous movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Once again there is a collision between a peaceful, old-fashioned village and a series of warring, high-tech societies. Once again there is an environmental theme, which is once again expressed through a heroic princess who is the only one can utilize nature’s power to a righteous end. Once again there are arrogant, power-hungry warlords who want to use a natural power to devious ends. And once again those villains want to seize their power by activating ancient, destructive beasts.
Miyazaki’s third feature is largely a remake of his second, albeit with some noticeable cosmetic changes. But Castle in the Sky does mark a genuine improvement over Nausicaa (and Miyazaki’s first film, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro) in the sense that there are no completely extraneous characters. Every major figure in the film has something to do, and even if the heroine and her male sidekick/chaste romantic interest have scarcely more personality than Princess Nausicaa, at least they each have a complete character arc. And some of the supporting characters are genuinely eccentric. A family of shy, bumbling sky pirates, led into combat by their domineering, clown-haired matriarch, keep the film lively even as the plot goes through the “fantasy 101” motions. Even the most ill-defined of the film’s major characters, a villainous army general, has a clear function in the plot, so it doesn’t seem like a waste of the film’s generous running time to feature him in scenes the way that it did with, say, the master swordsman in Nausicaa.
Castle in the Sky does have a few of the impressively large action set pieces that we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki. The master animator boldly opens the film deep in the middle of the action, with the princess being chased through a giant air ship by the sky pirates, as if this was a late chapter in an ongoing serial and not the beginning of a children’s film. A massacre that occurs when one of the aforementioned robots is unleashed is genuinely intense and brutal, with Miyazaki grippingly building the intensity by continuously increasing the scope and scale of the destruction until the screen is virtually filled with blood-red fire. But overall Castle in the Sky, like Nausicaa, is too convoluted, lumbering, and lengthy to be consistently thrilling. The ambitious, wide-canvas style that Miyazaki is quickly turning into his signature style does give Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky a truly epic feel, but its easy to miss the fleet-footedness and insouciant wit of Castle of Cagliostro, which remains Miyazaki’s most enjoyable film to this point.
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