It's the same film as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
, but from a different point of view. Both films are about a world where many centuries ago a mighty technological civilisation fell, with Miyazaki's message being an environmental one. The difference is that Nausicaa showed us a poisonous post-apocalyptic Earth where mankind was in danger of becoming extinct, whereas Laputa is set in an alternate universe that I'll misrepresent for now as the Sherlock Holmes era, but with airships. Miyazaki's Sherlock Hound TV series was also around now, by the way.
Nausicaa did it better, though.
As with Nausicaa, the setting is one of the best things about this film. This time it's a less spectacular setting and we lose sight of it a bit once we've found our way to Laputa itself, but I really enjoyed the carefully vague European period feel. My best guess was the 1930s, based on the technology and fashions, but it would seem to be the nineteenth century since Pazu's dead father's photograph of Laputa is dated July 1868.
The world itself is surprisingly earthy for Miyazaki, which is refreshing. It feels sufficiently real that one generally doesn't regard it as an alternate universe, but merely a bit of history that happens to have had some unusual technology. Our hero Pazu comes from a working-class mining town that's drawn in large part from real life. To quote Miyazaki: "I was in Wales just after the miners' strike. I really admired the way the miners' unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film. [..] Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol, a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone."
Similarly the weapons and technology are a mixture of British and German designs, The army's uniforms, medals, stick grenades and gigantic battle zeppelin "Goliath" are German, but the clothes and guns are British. Technology isn't quite what you'd expect, but that's because the big difference between this world and our own is flight. Everyone flies. This is very Miyazaki. The army, pirates and Laputans all have their own style of flying ships, with the pirates for instance using some buzzing bluebottle-like flyers. Meanwhile the Laputans had an anti-gravity mineral which the English subtitles call Volucite, which would be a closer translation if the English word for "aeroplane" was "voluciplane". That's how their castle flies. It really is a flying castle, by the way, and it's still out there. The film's story is about everyone's attempts to find it. We have:
1. Pirates, who want its treasure.
2. The army, who want its technology.
3. Muska, who's helping the army but has motives of his own.
4. Pazu, a boy whose father claimed to have seen Laputa and was thus until his death branded a liar. Pazu feels this deeply.
5. Shiita, a girl with Laputan blood in her veins. She's... um, she's actually one of the film's problems. She's a bit bland. She's nice, but she's completely generic and spends the entire film running away from scarier people than herself. She gets a startling introduction, but thereafter she's forgettable. Pazu is much more interesting. Admittedly Shiita has what could be called Laputan superpowers, revealed late in the film in slightly groanworthy fashion, but they don't change her as a person.
Oh, she's not bad. I liked Shiita and I wanted her to succeed and beat the bad guys. However she's definitely one of Miyazaki's blander heroines.
Nevertheless the first half of the film is good. Miyazaki lets down his hair with comedy scenes of Pazu being an idiot and a testosterone-laden face-off between miners and pirates that ends in a street brawl. His working-class miners' village is accurate enough to have that edge of reality which always makes things much more interesting. Miyazaki is a fantasist, but here the fantasy element involves guns and airships, making the results less airy-fairy than he can be sometimes.
Then we've got Laputa and its lost technology. At one point the army shows up with a giant robot! They think it's dead. I think we all know where this is going. Sure enough, this multi-storey behemoth proves to have jetpacks, bat wings, two (count 'em) kinds of head-mounted laser and a vicious temper if you get it mad. That's a cool giant robot. Apparently it was inspired by the ones in the Fleischer Superman.
I wasn't wild about the pirates, though. They get a good introduction, but thereafter they slowly degenerate into Lupin III comic characters. They're led by Mama, a big lady who's got the same prune-like face you'll see on all of Miyazaki's old women, despite her body being that of one of Go Nagai's wrestlers. At first we think they're bad. Soon we realise they're funny. After that they become our heroes' allies. This film plugs into one of my hobby-horses: the portrayal of pirates in anime. I've lost count of the number of anime shows and films that have pirates as heroes, or at least sympathetic characters. This is a film with two messages: (a) stay in touch with nature and environmental issues, (b) people who steal and probably kill for a living are cool and funny.
Nevertheless I have to admit that the pirates made me laugh. I've already mentioned the face-off, but I also enjoyed the scene where they're all fawning on Shiita.
Everything in the real world is good. It's always fun to see what new technology Miyazaki's going to come up with, e.g. the army's steam-powered tank train. The film feels more grounded, somehow. However everything drifts away a bit once we've reached Laputa, although in fairness that's late in the film. The villains aren't scary, but simply wrong. As in Nausicaa, their mentality is causing them to see the wrong problems and do the wrong things, but the stakes aren't as high this time and you're never particularly worried about what might happen if they succeeded. Yes, Laputa has giant robots and blaster cannons that can disintegrate entire ships in a single shot, but any character getting excited about that kind of thing in a Miyazaki film has missed the point.
Laputa itself isn't what I'd been expecting, although it's very Miyazaki. It's sweet. It's a nice place to visit, but it's not particularly dramatic. I approved of the scene near the end where Shiita and Pazu do something apparently suicidal, but they don't die. Muska kills some people, though.
The film's title is unfortunate. Laputa is a reference to the flying city in Gulliver's Travels, but Miyazaki hadn't realised when he did that that Jonathan Swift was such an evil-minded bugger. "La Puta" is Spanish for "whore". Better yet, the current American licensees are Disney. Unsurprisingly the film's known merely as "Castle in the Sky" in Spain, Mexico, America and anywhere else that anyone was worried about possible Spanish-speakers.
Curiously Laputa has a population of fox-squirrels from the post-apocalyptic Earth of Nausicaa. Let the fan theories begin.
I like this film, but I don't love it. I've never really seen Miyazaki as a storyteller and despite the film holding up very well for an hour and a half, in the end that comes across here loud and clear. Nevertheless it's funny, it's imaginative and I like one of its two messages. It's always good to see more environmentally themed films, if they're good. Despite its problems, this is still a Miyazaki film and full of humanity and beautiful craftsmanship.
Has almost no points of similarity with Howl's Moving Castle, by the way, despite the title.