Castle in the Sky

Special showing at the IFC Center. Also on DVD.

Castle in the Sky is one of animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s early films, but in it, you can see glimmers of his later, more polished works. There is the old woman who is more than what she first seems to be and the young woman whose past holds a mystery, even from herself (Spirited Away). There are the environmental themes, explored with gravity and reverence and just a trace of horror (Princess Mononoke). There are the outrageous, elaborate, ravishingly detailed flying machines (Howl’s Moving Castle and, really, just about every other Miyazaki movie—he’s obsessed).

Without question, those later movies are far more ambitious and innovative than the comparatively modest Castle in the Sky, but frankly, Castle is pretty damn ambitious and innovative in its own right. And like all Miyazaki’s films, no matter how sophisticated, it is childlike in the best sense: possessed of a luminous, ageless sense of wonder that makes the fantasy story come alive.

Released in Japan in 1986 and dubbed into English by Disney in the late 1990s, Castle in the Sky opens with a bravura action sequence. A young girl, Sheeta, guarded and imprisoned by a team of government agents, seizes the opportunity to escape when the airship transporting her is attacked by a band of pirates. In all the hubbub, she tumbles from the ship, plummeting to earth and oblivion, until the pendant around her neck begins to glow. Suddenly, she is no longer falling but floating. A boy named Pazu catches her unconscious form when she reaches the ground and helps her when she wakes, for now she is being pursued by the agents and the army and the pirates, all of whom seem desperately interested in her heirloom necklace.

The English voice acting is unfortunate. Anna Paquin gives Sheeta a stilted delivery with a weird disappearing-reappearing accent, and James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek infamy is gratingly overwrought as Pazu. The only real bright spot is Cloris Leachman, giving voice to Dola, the pirate queen, with scratchy gusto. But never mind the voices. Dialogue is never particularly important in Miyazaki’s films anyway. The magic is in the imagery, and there, Castle delivers.

Sheeta and Pazu’s adventures take them through a dark cave illuminated by crystals, to a mighty stone fortress, through a terrifying thunderstorm, and finally to an eerie floating island (the titular castle), and along the way, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli create some breathtaking moments, moments that truly reach that mythic quality the fairy tale is searching for. The garden at the heart of the castle, in particular, is a gorgeous, dreamlike locale, not quite as haunting as the otherworldly bathhouse of Spirited Away but damn close.

The plot, involving a magical kingdom, is more straightforward and commonplace than I expect from Miyazaki, but it’s well paced, and it takes a few interesting turns. Individually, Sheeta and Pazu aren’t particularly compelling heroes, certainly nothing like the intrepid Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service or bratty little Chihiro of Spirited Away, but they have a sweet rapport together, making the pair worth more than the sum of its parts.

But it all comes back to that castle. Before the movie reached that small flying island, I was diverted but far from captivated, but the castle, with its lush gardens and the elegiac remnants of some long-lost civilization, soon had me spellbound. There, more than anywhere else, is where you see Miyazaki’s soon-to-be-realized promise. At the castle, he transcends cute and achieves that enchanting, shimmery grandeur that makes his later films so mysterious and so beautiful.