From the moment orphan heroine Sheeta leaps from an airship and plummets to the earth, the movie charges along like a runaway freight train. If My Neighbour Totoro (1988) is Miyazaki’s E.T. (1982), Laputa is his Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Sheeta’s life is saved by the necklace she wears containing a fragment of the Levitation Stone that powers the legendary flying island Laputa, and by boy hero Pazu. Another orphan, Pazu longs to fulfil his father’s dream and discover Laputa. A pirate gang led by the notorious Ma Dola are after Sheeta’s necklace, so Pazu brings her to his idyllic mining community. In the mid-eighties, ardent Marxist Miyazaki visited Wales for research and drew inspiration from the miners’ strike. Scenes of boisterous brawling and cartoon camaraderie recall John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). Super-strong miners face down pernickety pirates. A muscleman flexes and rips his shirt. “Who is going to sew that back together?” quips his wife, cutting him down to size. A helter-skelter chase ends with the Dola gang beguiled by Sheeta’s innocence, while Ma melts at the kids’ blossoming love, recalling her own youthful romance. Everyone bonds against a common enemy: the corrupt military and psychotic secret policeman Muska. Pazu and Sheeta discover high-flying Laputa, a pastoral wonderland protected by gentle, giant robots. But Muska breaks in with his hidden agenda, to reactivate Laputa as an all-powerful superweapon. Can true love and youthful idealism rescue humanity?
Laputa is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride, mixing steampunk sci-fi, eco-politics, and heartfelt idealism. An extrapolation of Miyazaki’s earlier television anime Future Boy Conan (1978), it is a perfect introduction to his oeuvre, although maniacal Muska remains his only two-dimensional villain. The anime maestro crams his film full to bursting with shootouts, gravity defying leaps, shape-shifting robots and literary allusions (Laputa features in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Yet it remains Miyazaki’s tightest screenplay, featuring some of his most moving scenes (the dying robots, Muska shooting off Sheeta’s pigtails – symbolic of her lost innocence), and persuasive political argument. You’ll never be more convinced that nature fused with technology can bring together idealistic workers, sentimental rogues, noble robots and selfless children to save the day.