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Castle In The Sky (DVD)

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Thanks to an Oscar nod and a second theatrical run, Hayao Miyazaki's lively animated fairy tale Spirited Away is finally getting a warmer reception in America. Better yet, its home-video release arrives at the same time as the long-awaited U.S. DVD release of two of Miyazaki's earlier animated features, 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service and 1986's Castle In The Sky. A cheery kids' story about a young witch moving to a new town, where she supports herself by delivering packages via flying broomstick, Kiki received a dubbed-VHS-only release a few years back, while Castle's mini-epic adventure story is finally getting its much-delayed first American release. But both films clearly show how Miyazaki earned his reputation as Japan's Walt Disney, a man whose every project becomes a beloved classic. Fans of Miyazaki's darker movies (Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke chief among them) may find Kiki bland and child-safe; of all the movies he's written and directed, its features the least conflict and calamity. The worst that happens to the eponymous young witch is that she becomes dangerously depressed and momentarily stops believing in herself: For the most part, her effervescent energy and determination keep her spirits high as she enthusiastically explores her new town and new life. Castle, by contrast, is still on the lighthearted end of the Miyazaki spectrum, but it features more dashing adventure, as a young boy named Pazu meets a young girl named Sheeta, who falls out of the sky, saved from messy parachuteless death by the mysterious glowing pendant around her neck. It turns out that unpleasant folks are chasing her, hoping to track down a hidden floating city that Pazu's father once photographed. The children end up on the run, pursued by good-hearted pirates and evil bureaucrats, and the chase ranges from underground depths to soaring heights. Miyazaki's career obsession with flight shows through clearly in both films, which are packed with elaborate flying contraptions and dizzying aerial excursions that provide a sneaky inroad to Miyazaki's other obsession: magnificently detailed, colorful vistas that lay out his familiar but fantastical worlds with impressive precision. Disney's editions seem less crisp and colorful than they should be, their dub tracks are almost comically bland (with the exception of Phil Hartman's turn as Kiki's black cat), and only the truly obsessive will take more than passing interest in the films' storyboards, which somehow necessitated a second disc for each release, Spirited Away included. But extras seem like unnecessary icing on a cake that's plenty sweet on its own. The joy, talent, and charm that show through in every aspect of Miyazaki's films are flavoring enough.