"Laputa: Castle in the Sky" is a frequently astounding animated feature from Japan. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it is an imaginative extrapolation of a reference in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" to Laputa, a floating island-city hovering over Balnibarbi. Miyazaki uses that to spin off a modernistic sci-fi fable with a subtle ecological message that is delivered only after two hours of Indiana Jones-style adventure.
The film kicks off with the kind of slam-bang, pre-credits confrontation Jones would appreciate. A young orphan named Sheeta has been kidnapped by the secret agent Muska and is being flown to a military fortress when their transport is attacked by air pirates. Trying to escape, Sheeta flies out the window, but instead of crashing to the ground, she floats unconscious to a soft landing in the arms of Pazu, an orphan who works in the mines but whose head is constantly in the clouds. Seems Pazu's father was a photographer who once got off a shot of the legendary and elusive Laputa, only to be disgraced when it was dismissed as a hoax.
When Sheeta and Pazu discover that the pendant she's wearing is not just a family heirloom (or airloom, since it turns out to be a magical levitation stone), they set out to find the floating city before the government can usurp its wealth and power. Pazu's looking to clear his father's reputation; Sheeta turns out to be long-lost royalty; Muska has his own devious agenda.
Naturally, there are many adventures along the way, particularly after the youngsters team up with the air pirates, a jolly albeit bumbling crew led by their mother, Dola. Although some action takes place on the ground, most of it is in the air. Miyazaki has built some delightful propeller-driven planes with parts from Jules Verne, Rube Goldberg and comic artist Ron Cobb, and Laputa itself is a wondrous planet, an Atlantis-in-the-air where technology and ecology have fallen out of balance. Even the robots and levitating cubes have a moral duality.
Miyazaki's world, so full of color and life, is always just across the borderline of imagination, its acute details softened by clouds and shadows, its principles revealed by actions more than words. It's full of "Star Wars"-style confrontation, but it's also nice to see it handled on equal terms by male and female protagonists. "Laputa" should appeal to both children and adults; neither group is likely to mind its two-hour length.
That's really a testament to Miyazaki's skill as both storyteller and animator; his approach is always cinematic in a medium that's often dismissed. Many of today's Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons are cheaply produced in Japan, but the sophisticated "Laputa" is far superior to them in all its production values and is one of the first big-budget animated films from Japan to receive major exposure here. Ironically, it's not visibly "Japanese": The film is dubbed in English and all the characters are European-looking.
"Laputa" has resonance and complexity; it makes one eager for the next Japanimation feature, "Twilight of the Cockroaches," an R-rated, live-action animated film described as " 'Roger Rabbit' written by Franz Kafka."
Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, 1989