Miyazaki films generally are not fast-paced, non-stop adventures. What they have is an intimacy, a closeness with the human spirit. You'll watch Pazu go about his daily routine of oiling machines, cooking meals, and caring for his birds. When Pazu and Sheeta become recruits on a pirate ship, there are little moments like the changing of the watch in the crow's nest, and cleaning a kitchen to feed the band of pirates. It may be a mundane life, but the joy in doing a good job, in earning one's keep, in simply living the life you have to the fullest: this is what Miyazaki's films can convey. You can feel at home, as if you live alongside these people.
With this in mind, there's a lot that holds Castle in the Sky back from being a gripping piece of cinema. The color pallet is limited. The character design is simple. The music only makes itself heard in a few scenes, leaving the rest of the film deathly quiet. For all the idyllic and large scale backgrounds the movie may have, there's just no one scene that grabs the viewer and stays with them. Even if you compare this to later Ghibli works like Princess Mononoke, there just isn't much punch to anything. Even when the Sheeta and Pazu reach the fabled castle, there's an emptiness to it all. You may arrive at this scene thinking that now, now all kinds of secrets and mysteries will be revealed. But no, the few secrets of Laputa are revealed within a short time, and as an object of wonder, it really falls flat. Of course, I get the point of it being abandoned, so perhaps the movie just tugged me in just the direction it was supposed to.
It's odd that this movie could feature so many guns, and so many people shooting each other, but still feel like the most harmless production. Sheeta and Pazu are pursued by armies, secret government agents, and even armed pirates. There's little that's cartoonish about the weapons being used, but you catch on to the fact that no one will really hit anything living pretty early on. Still, there's a weird sense of shock when the villain points a revolver straight at Sheeta's face and fires.
Beyond the movie, this DVD offers a disc full of bonus features. This mainly consists of interviews with Miyazaki himself, as well as producers and the English voice cast. Listening to Miyazaki talk about Castle in the Sky seems a lot more engaging than actually watching the movie. Perhaps it's like that moment of discovery when someone explains the meaning behind a beloved poem. Other special features include a kind of interactive set of trailers for other Miyazaki films. These little segments really push the Disney values hard. An announcer explains Totoro as a place where your imagination is the limit. There's a little quiz for Castle in the Sky that identifies you with one of the film's characters, then tells you how you've got courage deep down inside, you should believe in yourself, etc. Storyboards for the entire film are also included. If you're a fan of storyboards, get yourself ready for 125 minutes worth of them.
This is a pretty solid DVD offering. Of course, you could always ask for more bonus content, but at least the interviews with Miyazaki are a nice window into the meaning of the film. This film is dated, but looks and sounds as good as it can for its age. It also runs a little long, so beware of putting this in front of an easily distracted youngster. Still, there's magic to be found here if you look for it.