Director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) once said that he liked Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) best among Ghibli movies. Considering that Oshii's own films have always evinced an affinity for darker and more adult themes, it's surprising to me that his favorite Ghibli movie would be arguably the studio's most straightforward boy entertainment. It's a swashbuckling adventure, full of sky pirates, airships, lost cities, chase sequences and daring rescues. If this movie had been available to me as a kid, I'm sure I would have cherished it and watched the VHS tape over and over again. Probably it would have joined the likes of Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone, as one of those cartoons that I would reenact together with the bossy girl at the family day care, who happened to be my only playmate there, even though I kind of hated her.
Castle in the Sky makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, but not an especially provocative one to stay with you afterward, unless you are of an age to be contemplating floating castles in earnest. There is a definite romanticism to this story and this world, among the most universally appealing (read: least discernibly Japanese) of all Miyazaki's. The main boy and girl are perfectly ordinary children, almost nondescript, that any young viewers who wish should easily be able to see themselves in those roles. The bad guy here is Ghibli's most unambiguously evil—the sort of monster that my child self would always relish role-play slaying, except that this one is just slightly unimpressive-looking.
Coming to it as an adult, I can still appreciate the craftsmanship but never get swept away by the story, which is rather by-the-numbers. To spin all that I've said above another way, Castle in the Sky is narratively conventional, the characters are generic and entirely forgettable, and I don't know that there is anything thematically of substance—certainly nothing for adults, but probably nothing for kids to meaningfully apply on growing up either. And as I re-watch these Miyazaki movies, I'm realizing how utterly devoid of comedic wit they are, which makes for some pretty bland casts. I think perhaps Miyazaki equates cleverness with insincerity. With the exceptions of the villains in this movie, every character, however rough their exterior, is almost insipidly gentle at core, and I'm betting that I'll only be seeing more of that as I get further through his catalog.
But there is room in cinema for gentleness. Castle in the Sky is also a beautiful film, an exciting one, and it has robots! Indeed, the robots were my favorite part, and I wonder if they weren't Miyazaki's as well. The old man claims not to own a computer, says he writes letters instead of emails, and rarely even watches TV. And yet this nature-lover also reveals through his works an affection for technology, so long as it's of the imaginary steampunk variety.
Late in the movie, when our young heroes finally arrive at the lost city of Laputa, they are met by a robot. It can't speak, but it reaches for their glider. Knowing how strong the robot is, the kids fear that it will destroy their craft. But the robot carefully lifts the glider to reveal a bird's nest underneath, which the humans had thoughtlessly landed upon. We also observe that the robot is covered in moss, and birds and the little fox-squirrels from Nausicaa rest and play upon its shoulders. Apparently, after generations with no humans around, Laputa developed into an idyllic paradise of robot and nature existing in perfect harmony together. And I might ask, what's the point if there are no people? But, of course, things literally fall apart once the humans do arrive.
One last note regarding the soundtrack: For the English version, Disney had Joe Hisaishi rework the score. He replaced the original synthesizer soundtrack with symphony orchestra recordings for a much fuller sound, also adding music to scenes that had none in the Japanese version, so as to make it more suitable for American markets. Hisaishi and Miyazaki were both reportedly quite pleased with the results, and I personally wished Disney would have made similar arrangements for its Nausicaa release. Instead, on Disney's most recent 2010 DVD of Castle in the Sky, they apparently ditched the new music and reinserted the original score into even the English version. Frankly, I find it baffling that all that work would just go abandoned now, especially given that the Japanese audio track has always been there as an option for anyone who prefers it. I'm hoping that they'll include the re-score as an option on the upcoming Blu-ray (I understand that it's on the UK and Australian Blu-rays, not released by Disney).