Aboard an airship, a young girl, Sheeta, is escorted to an unknown destination by sinister-looking agents under Colonel Muska. The ship is attacked by a group of sky pirates; in the resulting disorder, Sheeta takes a small pendant from Muska and escapes. The sky pirates, led by an old but vivacious woman Dola, attempt to seize her and the pendant, but accidentally, Sheeta falls from the ship. As she falls, the pendant radiates a blue light and she gently floats to the ground. A young boy, Pazu, witnesses this in amazement and catches Sheeta. He takes her back to his home, where she finds a photograph of Laputa. Pazu explains that his deceased father took the photo, but was disbelieved by his contemporaries. Pazu believes the city exists, however, and wants to find it someday himself.
Dola’s band of sky pirates (mainly built up of her sons and crews) arrive at Pazu's house, forcing the children to escape on a railway. Their path is blocked by an armored train; the government agents inside attempt to capture Sheeta. With both pursuing parties fighting each other over the girl, the children fall from a collapsing rail trestle, but are saved when Sheeta's pendant activates once again, allowing them to float safely into an abandoned mine shaft. There they meet an old miner, Uncle Pom, who tells them of "volucite" ("aetherium" in Disney's English language dub), the crystal that provided Laputa with its power. He reveals that Sheeta’s pendant is one of the largest and purest of such crystals in existence, and counsels Sheeta to remember that the crystal's power rightly belongs to the earth, and that she should never use it to commit acts of violence.
Upon returning to the surface of the land, Sheeta tells Pazu that she has inherited an ancient "secret name": Lusheeta Toel Ul Laputa (Laputian for "Sheeta, True Ruler of Laputa"). Government agents suddenly appear and take them both into custody. They are taken to a fortress and separated.
The general in command of the fortress discusses with Muska the government-sponsored search for Laputa, and agree that Sheeta and her crystal are the keys to its discovery. Muska reveals to Sheeta his knowledge of her true name, shows her a huge android robot believed to have been created in Laputa, and intimates that unless she co-operates with him in unlocking the crystal's secrets, which he believes can be used to physically locate Laputa, Pazu is likely to come to harm. Seeking to protect her friend, Sheeta tells Pazu that she has agreed to co-operate with Muska and asks him to forget her and Laputa. Stung by this apparent rejection, Pazu returns to his village, only to find Dola's pirate family occupying his home. Pazu tells Dola of his experiences; when the pirates learn that Sheeta, Muska, and the general will depart the fortress in search of Laputa aboard the gigantic military airship Goliath, Pazu begs Dola to take him with her.
In her tower, Sheeta recites a spell given by her grandmother, causing the crystal to emanate a light that points to Laputa. The spell also re-animates the robot, which wreaks havoc on the army base with its superior weaponry. The robot rescues Sheeta, demonstrating its loyalty, before it is destroyed by the Goliath. Pazu and Dola rescue Sheeta; she drops the pendant, which is then recovered by Muska.
The children and Dola's pirates pursue the Goliath aboard the pirate ship Tiger Moth, intent on finding Laputa before the Goliath does. That night, as Sheeta and Pazu stand watch on the crows nest, they talk at length about their respective lives, touching upon Sheeta's study of magic words and mentioning one such spell, the Spell of Destruction, a power Sheeta has never used. Dola, who is awake in bed, overhears their discussions through the intercom.
Amid their conversation, Pazu sees the Goliath rise from the clouds. The airship attacks, but the Tiger Moth escapes unharmed. The Tiger Moth enters a storm, and Dola tells the children to keep watch above the clouds by turning the crows nest into a glider. Soon a massive cloud becomes visible. Pazu recognizes it from his father's descriptions as Laputa's hiding place. As they try to find a way in, the Goliath attacks again and the glider Sheeta and Pazu are riding is blasted away from the pirate ship. The children land in Laputa, only to find the city devoid of human life, having only a single robot among the ruins taking care of the grounds. This robot is implied to be "friends" with small animals. In the grounds is a gargantuan tree, whose roots have pervaded Laputa's base.
The Goliath arrives at Laputa, whereupon the soldiers plunder the city's vast treasures. The Tiger Moth is found wrecked on the surface with Dola and the pirates being held captive. Pazu runs off to rescue Dola while Sheeta witnesses Muska locating a hidden entrance to a large sphere that surrounds the city's core; Sheeta is captured and taken inside. Pazu frees the pirates and, after many difficulties, finds another way into the sphere.
Muska takes Sheeta into Laputa's core, a chamber holding a gigantic Volucite/Aetherium crystal that serves as the city's power source, and reveals that he is also an heir to the throne of Laputa. He takes control of Laputa and all its technology and demonstrates the power of the city to the army by beaming a immensely powerful blast toward the surface. He then activates hundreds of robots to wipe out the army and the Goliath while Dola and the pirates hide from the robots inside the remains of the Tiger Moth. Sheeta frees herself, steals back the crystal and runs through the core with Muska in close pursuit. Eventually, she finds Pazu and passes the crystal to him.
Muska corners Sheeta in the city's throne room. Pazu arrives and asks for a moment to talk to her, which Muska grants. Together, the two children decide to use the Spell of Destruction; with a single word, the pendant releases an enormous power surge that triggers the collapse of the city's core. Muska is blinded and subsequently falls to his death. Sheeta and Pazu fall only to wake up among the roots of the giant tree. Afterwords they find their way back to the glider and leave Laputa.
The Dola pirates also survive Laputa's destruction aboard their moth fighters, and are overjoyed to be reunited with Sheeta and Pazu in midair. The pirates and the children bid each other a fond farewell and part ways. Meanwhile, the remains of Laputa, held together by the tree, continue to rise, until they apparently establish an orbit high above the earth.
|Character||Japanese original||Original English dub||Disney's English dub|
|Pazu||Mayumi Tanaka||Bertha Greene||James Van Der Beek|
|Sheeta (Princess Lucita Toel Ul Laputa)||Keiko Yokozawa||Louise Chambell||Anna Paquin|
|Dola||Kotoe Hatsui||Rachel Vanowen||Cloris Leachman|
|Muska (Romska Palo Ul Laputa)||Minori Terada||Jack Witte||Mark Hamill|
|Uncle Pom||Fujio Tokita||Fujio Tokita||Richard Dysart|
|Shogun Mouro / General||Ichiro Nagai||Mark Richards||Jim Cummings|
|Boss||Charles Wilson||John Hostetter|
|Shalulu / Charles||Takumi Kamiyama||Bob Stuart||Michael McShane|
|Lui / Louis||Yoshito Yasuhara||Daniel Morris||Mandy Patinkin|
|Anli / Henri||Sukekiyo Kameyama||Ernest Fessler||Andy Dick|
|Old Engineer||Ryuji Saikachi|
The world in which the story takes place is clearly Earth, but apparently in an alternate history. None of the place names match real-life geography. The airships appear to use buoyant gas, but are different in appearance than actual dirigibles. The pirate flaptors and military planes do not resemble actual craft. The film takes place sometime between 1868 and 1900, as the photograph of Laputa inside Pazu's house, taken by his father, is dated "1868. 7,".
The opening part of the woodcut-like opening credits shows a windmill with a kiln behind it, set in a hillside, with a man tending it. Afterwards, the windmills grow into enormous, apparently partially wind-powered factories or machines, with machinery digging deep into the earth. Dirigibles appear, along with airplanes and helicopters or autogyros flying against a clouded cityscape. A giant helicopter-ship is shown rising into the air, and then a Laputa-like city appears, with rotors. Subsequently a scene of floating islands and cities appears. Enormous, boxy, metallic helicopter-ships are shown, having rotors propelling them from the bottom. Disaster strikes: lightning is shown and redness fills the screen. A sky-city can be seen, faintly, crumbling in the background, and then people are shown leaving the wreckage of a giant helicopter-ship.
The flying machines depicted in the opening scenes of the film are similar to Leonardo da Vinci's early drawings of a wooden helicopter.
After Princess Mononoke flopped financially in the US, Laputa's release date was pushed back yet again; on occasion the completed dub was screened at select children's festivals. The film was finally released on DVD and video in the US on April 15 2003, alongside Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away. As with Mononoke and Kiki, critical opinion was mixed about the new dub, but Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill's performances as Dola and Muska drew nearly universal praise. Laputa was the second-best selling DVD from Studio Ghibli distributed by Disney in the year of its release (after Spirited Away and ahead of Kiki's Delivery Service).
The film currently holds a 92% "Fresh" rating at RottenTomatoes.com.
Although meaningless in Japanese, "Laputa" (La puta) translates to "the whore" in Spanish, which was probably intentional on the part of Swift, who created the concept in Gulliver's Travels. For this reason, in 2003, the film's title was shortened from Laputa: Castle in the Sky to Castle in the Sky in several countries, including the United States (where Spanish is commonly spoken as a first language by around 10% of the population or as a second language by students), Mexico, and Spain. This change was also carried over to a number of non-Spanish speaking countries, including Britain and France, under Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment label, despite Laputa having no meaning in either English or French (however the French "La pute" is quite close). Although "Laputa" was removed from the title, it appeared on the rear cover of the DVD, and was used throughout the film, without modification.
The film's full name was later restored in Britain, in February 2006, when Optimum Asia - a division of London-based Optimum Releasing - acquired the UK distribution rights to the Studio Ghibli collection.
Additionally, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pre-Disney dub was screened in the UK, as an art-house film, under the alternative title Laputa: The Flying Island. It was also shown at least twice on British television, but some scenes were cut.
Although the plot and much of the script was left intact, Disney's English dub of Laputa: Castle in the Sky contains some changes.
Although all these alterations were approved by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki, there have been a number of critics and fans who called them into question. In particular, some fans pointed out that the new soundtrack placed music in scenes that previously involved the dramatic use of natural silence, as in the opening airship raid or when Pazu and Sheeta pass through the storm-cloud. On the other hand, Miyazaki himself is said to have approved of Hisaishi's reworking ; his compliments were echoed by several reviewers.