“Lincoln” was a good film. I think it could be a very good one, once it’s done marinating in my mind. For the most part, Spielberg stayed out of the way, made it pretty, let a splendid cast do their thing, told a naturally compelling story without trying to force significance upon us.
But that ending. Sweet heavens, Steven, what was that business? We all knew the movie had to end with Lincoln’s assassination. And given how spending 2 and a half hours with a Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis had made me particularly fond of this particular Lincoln, well, I was geared up to quite saddened by the inevitable end. That’s not easy to do. Biopics tend to have a mechanical coldness to them. “Lincoln” was lively and entertaining, and it swept me into its rhythms and made me invested at a level beyond simply rooting for Lincoln because he’s Lincoln. I rooted for Lincoln in this film because he was a superb character in this film.
The reveal, at a musical that Abe’s son Tad is attending, just felt cheap. I can understand why Spielberg took that route. The events in the film are accurate. Tad was seeing a musical at another theatre when his father was assassinated, and learned of the assassination when the show was stopped by the theatre manager.
Talking about it with my sister, she felt Spielberg must have been taken with the idea of the potential power for a scene like this. And there was potential power. Except it was robbed by virtue of it being a completely unnecessary bait and switch. The film clearly expects us to think that the play, established in the scene’s opening shots, in the one Abe is attending.
By the time Spielberg pulls his reveal (which, again, is completely unnecessary) he reveals that Lincoln has been killed. Cut to his dead body on his deathbed. Cut to an ending speech (with an odd transition shot of Abe floating inside a candle flame, the primary instance of Spielberg letting his cornier instincts get the better of him. End of the movie. No reflection on how earth-shattering this event is for the film’s massive cast of characters, let alone a country that had seen the Civil War end just days earlier. No chance for the audience to really grasp his death as anything more than a fact that we already knew about coming in.
“Lincoln” worked as a film because Spielberg knew his material was really damn strong, and he simply told the story. The let the drama play out. Until the last scene. You don’t build such a strong story about such a towering figure, do it better than any biopic should have the right to, and then fail to bid that character a proper farewell. You don’t reveal his death with smoke and mirrors.
Maybe Spielberg didn’t want to linger on Lincoln’s death, which is why he chose that speech as the closing shot. I don’t know. But even that, after glossing over such a monumental event, amounts to a cheap trick of an ending. With “Lincoln”, we two and a half hours getting to know the Lincoln Spielberg wants us to. And it is a wonderful experience. But then Spielberg shoos us out the door before we have a chance to say goodbye, and he hopes a few nice parting memories will suffice.
The term “The Leap” is often used to describe when someone or something with tremendous potential finally puts it all together and “leaps” into greatness.
Sportswriter Bill Simmons coined the term for athletes who achieve their first truly great season. TV writer Alan Sepinwall often uses it to describe TV shows that need a year or two to figure out what works, what doesn’t, before its creators put together a show that is as good as it can possibly be.
What the hell does any of this have to do with “Castle in the Sky”? Well, I think of this film as the one where Miyazaki took a leap of his own, on his third go as a director. I used to give “My Neighbor Totoro”, his fourth film, that honor. But watching it again, I realized that while “Castle in the Sky” doesn’t quite reach “Totoro’s” levels of perfection, it is the first film where the elements that make Miyazaki’s films so damned appealing are fully, confidently on display. He found that extra something. He took the Leap.
“Castle of Cagliostro” is a splendid action adventure film, a genre work that was part of a much larger, much beloved series. It allowed Miyazaki to showcase his skill in animating action sequences. He compensated for the lack of realism (and a lack of frames-per-second) by flipping realism the bird, leading to delightfully absurd moments like when two cars involved in a chase decide to go straight up a completely vertical cliff.
“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” saw Miayzaki on his own story-wise, working with his own source material, and the story is where the film stumbles. However, the film is a majestic work, full of images that only Miyazaki could concoct and rich details that only Miyazaki would bother to include. He was on his way.
He found his way with “Castle in the Sky’s” full-blooded sense of adventure and confidence in its characters’ abilities to drive the story. “Castle in the Sky” may be a genre picture (it’s a classic adventure film, with earnest heroes, a dastardly villain, and a merry band of rogues with hearts of gold) but like the very best best genre films, it transcends the conventions of the genre thanks to characters who we want to succeed because we love them so damn much, and not just because we expect them to.
A key scene occurs near the end (so stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film).
The bulk of the praise aimed at Miyazaki is reserved for his imagination and the strength of his characters. However, he is also an uncommonly delicate storyteller, as evidenced by a pivotal scene in the film’s last act.
The movie has built to a rousing action climax (inside the titular castle), and the protagonists, Pazu and Sheeta, are in something of a Mexican standoff with the evil villain Muska. The relationship between Pazu and Sheeta- close, protective, and platonic- is another staple of Miyazaki films, and their relationship is much more fully realized than either primary male-female relationship in his previous two films. They possess a gem that belongs to Sheeta, and that gives its carrier monumental destructive power. Given a moment to speak, they agree to use the gem to destroy the castle, with them inside, in order to prevent Muska from wreaking any more havoc.
The scene is carried out with gentle weight and resonance. It’s heartbreaking.
“Nausicaa” was an incomplete but rousing vision of what Miyazaki was capable of. “Castle in the Sky” sees Miyazaki in full command of his craft, effortlessly world-building and creating stories within. His greatest films (for my money, the trio of “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Princess Mononoke”, and “Spirited Away”) show how well he was able to refine various aspects of his style into stories of tremendous emotional resonance. But with “Castle in the Sky”, a thrilling romp, announcing a master’s arrival, is plenty good enough.