Round 5: GoingTheme-Lite

Castle in the Sky






Odd Choices

           Castle in the Sky (or Laputa: Castle in the Sky): From anyone else, the title “Castle in the Sky” would probably sound like a cheap toddler flick or an imitation of Disney. From Hayao Miyazaki, it suggests another fresh idea for him to spin his brilliant storytelling around. Titles, however, rarely say it all. First though, the setup:

Long ago, human colonies found a way to build flying cities, which were destroyed in an unspecified event, save for the city of Laputa. The key to finding the legendary city has been handed down through the descendants of Laputa’s royal family and is currently in the possession of an orphan named Sheeta. When we come in, she’s a captive on an airship under the control of Colonel Muska, who wants to find Laputa for his own means. However, during a raid by pirates who want to find Laputa for the treasures it may contain, Sheeta falls overboard in an attempt to escape. She goes unconscious in mid fall, and the necklace she reclaimed from Muska glows with power, slowing her fall to a gentle descent that deposits her in the hands of Pazu, a spirited and good-natured apprentice miner in his early teens.

Important to note about Castle in the Sky is that there’s not as much of an overarching point to it as most of Miyazaki’s features. It arguably gives a nod to the old sci-fi theme of power that man was never meant to have, but otherwise, it mainly reaches out to the audience on a visceral level. This begs the question of whether it stands out among his other quality efforts, and the answer I’ve heard most is that because it offers more simple pleasures, it’s the one that anyone can enjoy. However, for sheer fun and excitement, there is no doubt in my mind that The Castle of Cagliostro is the best Miyazaki has to offer. But on that note, I may as well mention thatI find several of his movies more exciting and fun, since The Castle of Cagliostro uses some PG-13 material, which means it can’t take the “most accessible” title from Castle in the Sky.

Actually, the first third or so of the movie suggests the start of one grand adventure. After the explosive opening places Sheeta in Pazu’s care, we spend a little time with them getting to know each other. Pazu, of course, is a gentleman at heart, and as an orphan himself living alone, he’s grateful for the company. He can be comical in ways usually reserved for knuckleheaded stooges, but here it makes him more like people many of us know; instead of bombastic overreactions, he picks himself up off the floor and is the first one to start cracking jokes about it, happy to make Sheeta laugh with him. In fact, he’s fairly sharp. Sheeta fits the “girl next door” description in more ways than one, though she’s hardly naïve, and she demonstrates more than once that she’s a brave kid. After about five minutes with them, the pirates enter and pursue them in an extended chase scene that highlights the movie. All the while, the mystery of Laputa hangsover the story, and the movie does well in keeping us interested. The visuals are not the most creative Miyazaki has ever produced, despite the science fiction elements of the story. But still, the pirates’ bug-like flying contraptions aren’t bad, and the depiction of mines, factories, and trains are almost vivid enough to make up for it.

After a venture through the mines, however, the two are captured and held prisoner by Muska in a sequence that changes the whole dynamic about one act too early. The adventure is brought to a screeching halt so the movie can give away most everything we need to know about Laputa and rework everyone’s standing; Sheeta is now Muska’s captive again, Pazu is ousted from the adventure, and the pirates, more capable than the ones in Porco Rosso but still nearly as comical, are retooled as his soon-to-be allies and his way back in. Their mission to rescue Sheeta is pretty much accomplished for them in an explosive sequence colored with far too much orange. The move then adopts a more leisurely pace on the trip to Laputa, which contains many sweet moments but isn’t as interesting as the first act or as fulfilling as Miyazaki’s other movies. Not to mention that when Laputa finally appears, it rarely feels like more than a simple MacGuffin.

This is without doubt my least favorite Miyazaki film… which, in a way, is my biggest testament to what a spectacular director he is, because Castle in the Sky is still an effective, worthwhile feature. Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship, though never given the development of some of his best character dynamics, is still one of Miyazaki’s sweetest. That we don’t quite get to see it take the official step past “warm friendship” we know is inevitable is probably best. We grow to like them more throughout the movie, and the moment in which they make a critical decision together carries real weight. The explosive climax, another of the movie’s more exciting sequences, packs a tragic seriousness not quite like anything his other protagonists have had to face. It’s effective after a pleasant, if underwhelming, second act. And the animation is, as always, a pleasure.

Final Score: 7/10

Rock-A-Doodle: Having fallen to “passable” success with his previous feature (albeit with great success on home video), Bluth, it seems, wanted to do something different in Rock-A-Doodle. In fact, he went sort of freestyle.

The creative team behind Rock-A-Doodle seems to have had many impulses along the way and resisted none. The story is told with a paradox of a live-action storybook that becomes the animated story the movie is telling. This walks the line between “mysterious” and “sloppy” and often stumbles. At times it plays like an excuse to show their most odd, exotic images. Many of these can be fun to look at, but the color is a little dingy. In fact, it sometimes resembles Rock and Rule, the 1983 cult film, but it also holds some of the same appeal.

For storybook effect, Rock-A-Doodle provides us with a narrator, who is also a character in the movie. His opening sentence sounds like a combination of openers stitched together in the manner of Frankenstein’s monster; “Once upon a time, back before I knew how to tie my shoes, the sun came up!” This is about the standard for Rock-A-Doodle’s cohesiveness. The story centers around a rooster named Chanticleer, who crows every morning on his farm to bring up the sun. The Duke of Owls, who hates the light, finds a way to make the other animals turn on Chanticleer, and he leaves for the city. This is the animated portion of the story, the one we’ll mainly be following. (This might become hard to keep track of.)

The storybook is being read to a boy named Edmond, who lives on a farm now being flooded by a monsoon. Edmond thinks Chanticleer’s exile in the book may be the reason, so he throws open the window and yells for him. Magically, he is right, but instead the Duke of Owls crashes through his wall and turns him into an animated cat with his magic breath, which resembles expensive glitter. Though it takes him a couple more scenes to become a downright cheesy villain, this moment still lacks timing and visual intensity. Edmond is recued by Chanticleer’s friends, including our narrator dog named Patou, who set off together to retrieve Chanticleer from the city, pursued by the Duke’s nephew and main henchman, Hunch.

Bluth attempts to force in a lesson on believing in oneself, which is unbelievable as the first thing Edmond has problems with upon becoming a cat. But the plucky mouse he befriends is a nice testament in that direction. Much of the humor doesn’t work either, including some slapstick and a head-scratching running gag about the dog’s inability to tie his shoes. (I’m still wondering if the latter was supposed to be a metaphor for something.) My single biggest laugh was when Chanticleer’s manager in the city gets word that his friends are coming to reclaim him, which would mean the end of his new career as a rooster-Elvis that the manager prospers from. (“NO DOGS, CATS, BIRDS, or MICE!” ) But the Duke’s nephew, a gangly pygmy owl with just about the best Swiss Army Knife ever, is actually a better villain, a sort of underdog bad guy who has to rely on cunning and effort and doesn’t always end up the butt of the joke.

If Rock-A-Doodle just had competence from start to finish in addition to its fun aspects, I might have been able to recommend it, but it doesn’t. The narrator speaks far too frequently and often breaks the “show don’t tell” rule, sometimes explaining what we can clearly see regardless. His monologues are inserted with no sense of timing, drowning out moments like the movie’s highlight song for no real purpose. The movie’s paradox of realities also just isn’t as well done as such has been before and since, and I have to guess the only real reason for it was the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s blend of animation and live-action. In fact, as time goes by, even the need for Edmond to be the outsider it makes him becomes less apparent. It would have been fine for him to just enter the movie as a kitten and become the newest member of the group. Still, it surpassed my expectations.

Final score: 5/10

Winner: This is where Miyazaki’s consistency shines. Even his less enjoyable movies have undeniable merit as high-concept entertainment. Rock-A-Doodle isn’t smaller in scope than Bluth’s other movies, but it is smaller in ambition. While the same could be said to an extent of Miyazaki and Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki’s artistic vision and drive are clearly still behind it, making it the definite better of the two.


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