Hayao Miyazaki is widely regarded as the Japanese Disney, but those parallels aren’t entirely fair when it comes to his 1986 fantasy epic, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Instead, this action-adventure has more originality in its first dizzily exciting five minutes than a hundred Disney films could ever possibly hope for. Constructing a steampunk-cum-sci-fi world on the cusp of an industrial revolution, Miyazaki’s Laputa is at times action-packed and emotional, but always full of wonder and adventure.
Miyazaki’s airborne epic is such a staggeringly beautiful achievement in every way that it can’t just be explained in a simple plot summary, but here we go anyway… Charting the adventure of a young boy and girl with a magical crystal, Laputa follows their journey as they search for a long lost floating castle in the sky whilst being chased by a family of pirates and a band of foreign agents in a flying steam-powered aircraft – and that’s not even the half of it. It’s an epic story told on a broad canvas, but one that crucially tells a human story with an unusual level of realism for a cartoon.
Rendered with such beauty in its animation, each frame feels like it could stand as a painting that you could frame and hang up on your wall. The design work is nothing short of phenomenal, with Miyazaki’s usual flair for constructing mechanical flying contraptions definitely out in force. The landscapes too, have a magical – yet grounded – feel to them, which gives Miyazaki some great environments with which to stage his action scenes in.
Painted in deep earthly colours, Miyazaki fills these vast open spaces with frantic action and majestic set-pieces. The action is non-stop from the film’s opening blimp attack through to its airborne finale, via the best train chase sequence this side of The General.
Despite all the action constantly invading the screen, Laputa still hits home in the quieter moments with strong characterisation and broad humour. Both central leads feel well realised, with fully fleshed-out back stories and real motives for their adventurous motives. The family of pirates especially are treated as much more than simple caricatures and it is the overbearing mother that is given some of the best dramatic scenes, her character starting off as a pantomime villain, and developing into a fully rounded protagonist.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky is hard to pin down. With such original design work and action, it’s a constant mish-mash of genres and styles. What it excels at more than anything is constructing all these different elements into a cohesive, satisfying whole. When it is pinned down it’s an expansive, emotional and occasionally very funny adventure with some fantastic hand drawn animation. Whilst it might not be as densely plotted as some of Miyazaki’s later masterpieces, Laputa is still a superb action-packed fantasy worthy of your time and attention.