We fade into a dark sky, immersed in moonlight. A large blimp is dwarfed by the thick, billowing clouds. Another dirigible, this time a gigantic zeppelin, slides into view. Other than the whirring of machinery, the scene is silent. Suddenly, small mosquito-like aircraft burst out of the blimp; they carry air pirates. The pirates raid the zeppelin, popping up rounds of tear gas and shooting up the joint.
It’s no free-for-all, though. The pirates want a jewel necklace owned by a frightened girl. The girl is a passenger but an unwilling one. As soon as the raid starts, she clunks a guy on the head with a bottle, grabs her jewel from him, darts out the window, and carefully feels her way along the outside of the zeppelin. The pirates see her. Cheeta’s grip slips, and then she falls, screaming, into the clouds below her.
And then come the opening credits.
Castle in the Sky opens like gangbusters and doesn’t let up for the next two hours. The movie is a Jules Verne novel come to life. The opening credits and the flashbacks even evoke the pages of old, browned, illustrated adventure books. The lines are thinner here than the rest of the movie, and the colors are faded, almost as if they’d been bleached out by years of lying in the sun. The animation is slightly less fluid in the flashbacks, conjuring up the herky-jerkiness of silent cinema. Castle brims over with a 19th-century person’s notion of the future—it’s full of dirigibles, floating islands that hover on propellers, primitive photographs, Model T’s, mechanical birds, and bronze robots that are clunky and pre-modern in design. One of the heroes gasps when he says “a real automobile”; it’s his first time seeing one. The steam-driven technology and the meticulously detailed engineering—some of it true to life, some of it magical—provides many of the film’s pleasures.
Like Verne, Miyazaki wants to explore above and under the ground; the movie doesn’t stay earthbound for long. It’s a rip-roaring adventure that shames Jerry Bruckheimer’s shallow productions simply because Castle dares to be beautiful. From the detailed rock quarries and underground mines to the sun-drenched clouds above, and including the green rolling hills between the two, it’s gorgeous to behold.
I’ve written it before but it’s always worth noting how tactile Miyazaki and company seem to make his drawn world. As is often the case with him, this wonderful, subtly rendered world is created, and then is wrecked savagely by humans. The specter of apocalypse looms over the film’s final third and, at every turn, the movie shows how what happens above the earth affects what happens down below it, and vice versa.
The sky metaphorically falls on Earth when Cheeta—the girl with the jewel—lands in a mining town. That jewel slows her descent and lights her up like a shooting star. She’s caught by Pazu, a miner’s apprentice who sees her as he returns from break. They become friends but quickly discover that the jewel has even more powers in store. Pirates and a shadow government lust for it, and the army soon joins the fray. The jewel’s existence confirms the existence of a floating city (Laputa) that Pazu’s father once photographed, and Pazu sees it as his salvation.
The only one who understands its potential for destruction is Cheeta, who knows little about it as the movie begins. She’s a frightened innocent but she’s no dupe. She cracks a bottle over the head of a villain; she knocks down two brutes with a shovel during a terrific train chase; she braves a windy, cold night in a less-than-sturdy glider. When the time comes, she knows what to do to avoid apocalypse. She’s fearful, and with good reason, but she’s also strong enough to remain uncorrupted by the jewel’s power and its legacy.
The jewel is fashioned from a rare, unstable mineral. Only Laputans, the mythical engineers who created a hovering empire, could have done it. It’s magic that has been shaped by industry. The industrial world of Castle in the Sky—smokestacks are omnipresent; so are gears and pulleys—allowed for the crystal’s creation. But industrial progress is leaving nature, from which the minerals came, behind. The movie is ultimately a lament. In a mad rush for technological progress and the power it brings, the characters are in danger of losing their roots to the earth. Miyazaki seems unsure that we can recover what we’ve lost.
Laputa, when we finally see it, is so advanced that even top scientists can’t figure out how it operates; imagine it as a skybound Atlantis. It integrates mechanism with nature. Roots grow through metal. Robots are covered with algae, and birds perch on them. The organic and industrial worlds work side by side, and intertwine. It’s an humbling, gorgeous, perfect vision of the world. So it’s telling that the city’s absent of humans—such perfection can’t last in our presence. Indeed, when people finally do find the city, things go to pot pretty quickly.
While it has high-flying hijinks, pratfalls, fast pacing, and lots of explosions, Castle in the Sky is somber. Laputa’s vibrancy uplifts us but its necessary destruction wrecks us. Miyazaki wants to see nature and human industry act harmonically, but the movie leaves us unsure that it’s possible.