WORD OF NOTE: I realize there are people who will disagree with my post and I respect that. However, I will not put up with disrespectful, hostile posts, like accusing me of seeing what someone perceives as an "inferior" version first and being biased for it. I am not biased against older dubbing in general. Nor am I biased against any of the actors involved in the older dub, nor for the VAs in the newer dub. I will stand firmly behind this view, and if you disagree with it, that's fine. But any posts that come across as attacking and negative I will instantly delete.
To add some variety to this community I have decided to post some in-depth reviews to some of my favorite dubs of all-time. Most of these could be read on places like AnimeonDVD.com's English track forums, but I'm gladly gonna share them with you guys. Why? Because there are dubs out there which have been undeservedly passed over, and they deserve a far better fate than being dismissed. So that's what my newest posts will be to this site. Without further ado, tonight's first post about dub reviews is one of my personal favorite movies of all time, Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 action-adventure epic, Castle in the Sky, aka Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. Of all the dubs, this one is one of the most hotly debated, but I think it's an awesome dub, as you will see in my review. (Note that I will also compare it to the older dub that Streamline distributed years ago, not the Japanese version, as I am of the very opinion that a dub should stand on its own, and not simply be a carbon copy.) This is a totally subjective review, and is totally my opinion only.
THE DISNEY DUB
Recorded in 1998 but delayed until 2003, reactions to Disney's Castle in the Sky dub have been divided. Hardcore fans of the original Japanese were especially harsh, condemining it as a travesty to the original and that it is a dub to avoid. On the other hand, there have been just as many who actually enjoyed the dub as a fun and interesting reinterpretation of a classic masterpiece with clever casting choices and a fully spruced up (and extended from the original by the composer) musical score. To this day, the debate about the dub rages on, with a significant amount of detractors and admirers. (In case you haven't figured it out by now, I am one of the latter.)
The most outrageous of naysayers have claimed that the voice actors in the dub have no enthusiasm and that Disney was just setting out to descerate a masterpiece, both of which are subjective (and some might argue ridiculous) in the extreme. Two more realistic criticisms are that the lead characters sound older than their intended ages and that the script is talkier than necessary. Such faults aside, the Castle in the Sky dub is a first-rate English track when taken on its own. In fact, viewing it today, one wonders if these detractors saw the same dub.
Prior to Spirited Away, Disney's dubs for Ghibli works were handled by Jack Fletcher, which included Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, both of which, like this dub, were high quality but received divided reactions. Although there are those who argue that the more recent tracks by Lasseter are more faithful, I find myself drawn to the Fletcher dubs more for their interesting mixture of Anime voice over artists, traditional voice actors/actresses, and big-name talent, resulting in something of a unique, multicultural mix that I somehow miss from these new dubs. Castle in the Sky is my favorite of the three Fletcher dubs, and one that I enjoy listening to repeatedly.
It is true that the script adaptation sometimes verges on the loose side in places and goes overboard in inserting extra dialogue. But John Semper's overall script gives the movie a fresh, lively appeal for American audiences that still retains the adventurous tone of the original, with witty lines and smooth, natural writing. (It should also be noted, too, that every new line, adlibbed or altered, is not out of context with Miyazaki's signature and the actual plot is unchanged.) It is an admittingly liberal translation (with some omissisons such as the "Gulliver's Travels"] and "Treasure Island" references), but it's a well-written one.
As far as the voices go, Disney's dub has an eclectic selection of ideally chosen (and occasionally eccentric) performers to lend their voices. Fletcher does tend to make unusual casting decisions for his dubs, but he does make an effort to make sure each voice is directed well enough to not be detracting from the visuals or out of sync with the lip flaps (although there is one place where some of the lines are slightly off by about a hair, but not gratingly enough to detract).
James Van der Beek (Pazu): This has caused a lot of controversy from both critics and fans. While Van Der Beek's voice, as mentioned, does sound perhaps a too mature (although it would have been hard to imagine just what voice would suit this character, considering that he is in many ways young yet mature in others), his actual voice acting isn't as bad as you'd expect. Pazu is supposed to be earnest and exuberant, and Van Der Beek brings consistent enthusiasm to the part. His best scenes are where he's talking quietly with Sheeta, notably on the Crow's nest on the Tiger Moth and during some exploration scenes in Laputa. Admittingly, his performance isn't my favorite, but he does a better job than what naysayers give him credit for.
Anna Paquin (Sheeta): Like Van Der Beek, Paquin sounds a bit too mature, but a childlike quality still remains with her voice, making her more of an appropriate choice. Her acting is good, but her accent is wishy-washy. At times it sounds American, while at times, it sounds British. (This "problem", however, actually works in favor of her character, considering that she is from "far, far away.") There were perhaps a few moments when she wasn't as strong as others, but for the most part she acquits herself fairly well. (Interestingly, this wouldn't be her only voice acting role in Anime; about sometime after this film was released, she was the lead in Steamboy, but that's another story.)
Cloris Leachman (Dola): Unquestionably one of the very best performances in the cast (and one which was universally praised even by the minority who otherwise disliked the dub), Leachman simply is Dola. Not only does she have the right voice for the role, her vocal delivery and comic timing is impeccable. It's obvious she was having a blast with the part--every scene Dola's in is a delight.
Mark Hamill (Muska): Since his youthful days as a Jedi Knight, Hamill has proven himself to be quite an accomplished voice actor, with one of his most famous roles being the Joker from the Batman series. But with this film, Luke Skywalker finally crosses over to the Dark Side of the force. His vocalization of Muska is a mixture of Luke and the Joker, and it matches the character so well (especially at the climactic moments when he reveals his true identity) you'd swear he wasn't the same whiny but lovable hero moviegoers remember him best for. Sly and smooth-talking at one moment and devilishly insane at the next, Hamill runs wild with this character, oozing with genuine evil throughout. And of course the evil laugh--awesome. If there's any reason that this dub warrants a listen, it's his performance as well as Leachman's. These two are phenomenal.
Mandy Patinkin, Mike McShane, and Andy Dick (Louie, Charles, and Henri--Dola's boys): McShane and Dick both have had previous acting experience (in fact Mike was heard as a minor role in Princess Mononoke), but this was a first-timer for Mandy. All three are perfectly cast as the pirate triumvirate, and tear into their roles with the sort of comic campiness that these characters require. Their best moments are when they celebrate over Pazu and Sheeta joining them, asking for food, and later on, when they each approach Sheeta, offering to help her in the kitchen. One cannot help but chuckle along with their one-liners; extraneous though they may be at times, the manner in which they deliver them make this trio a lot of fun.
Richard Dysart (Uncle Pom): This is only a small role, but it's a very lovely one. Of the performances in the dub, this is the most underrated. Dysart has a gentle, kind voice and gives a warm performance for this character. Plus, his first lines where he mistakes Pazu and Sheeta for goblins are both priceless and beautifully delivered, especially, "I can't see you clearly yet, goblin, but you sound like Pazu! And if these old eyes of mine don't deceive me, there's a she-goblin with you." Brilliant!
Jim Cummings (General): Ah, clever casting yet again. From the moment I found out he was in this dub, I knew I wanted to hear him. His general is as gruff and scratchy as you'd expect (in fact, he sounds somewhat similar to Razoul from Aladdin--very fitting, in fact, since this character is similar), but it's in his scenes with Muska where he really shines. He also gets a memorable one-liner, "Blast! I really hate that man." If anything, this dub is more about the supporting characters than the leads.
John Hostetter (Boss): One of the things that I've always loved about the Ghibli dubs is how they use famous names with traditional voice actors and Anime voiceovers, giving them something of a multi-cultural feel. This role is an example of the latter. Hostetter is not very well known, but he has been heard in various dubs by Jack Fletcher--notably the Airship captain from Kiki's Delivery Service, and Ji-San in Princess Mononoke. There isn't much depth to his performance here, but there doesn't need to be. All that Hostetter has to do is provide gallant toughness and boldness, and he does just that with his gruff voice. It's a shame his voice has not been heard in any other Ghibli dub.
Aside from Tress MacNeille (who has become quite the Ghibli dubbing veteran), who turns in a cameo role as the wife of Pazu's boss, and Corey Burton (who is quite notable as one of Muska's agents) other roles in the dub are played by names such as John DeMita, Andrew Philpot, Michael Sorich, Matt Miller, Scott Menville, Eddie Frierson, and Debi Derryberry (who has a notoriety for playing high-pitched little girl's voices) as the obnoxiously funny, pint-sized daughter of Pazu's boss and a little softer and nuanced as young Sheeta in a flashback sequence. Admittingly, some of the incidental voices verge on sounding somewhat "cartoony," but considering that the movie has some equally cartoonish action, I don't consider this a bad thing at all. (I should mention, too, that whoever voices Sheeta's grandmother in the small flashback sequence is perfectly cast and acted.)
It's the new soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, though, that really makes this dub soar. There are those who say that it is too intrusive for a film which initially had periods of silence, but Disney's dub does manage to leave some intact (the sequence where the robot is attacking before blasting through the firedoor, the lookout in the clouds scene, and at the pivotal moment where Pazu slowly walks to embrace Sheeta after Muska gives him a minute to speak with her). When the music does come in, though, it is longer and extensive, but throughout it's absolutely gorgeous. Hisaishi is no stranger to Hollywood style scoring, and his reworking showcases how much he has progressed over the years as a musician. (To those who would like to hear the extensive new score separate from the dub, it's available on a soundtrack CD from Tokuma. Its catalog number is TKCA-72436.)
Not a purists' dub, but a fun, lively, and interesting reinterpretation, Disney's dub of Castle in the Sky isn't without its occasional shortcomings, but its strongest assets outweigh them by far and ultimately render the dub a delight. Even though some may use the dub as a speculation point about aural alterations, I have to say that it does its job in providing a rollickingly good, fresh new version of a classic tale and then some. It'll probably be too jarring for fans of the original Japanese to get accustomed to, but for what it is, it's certainly a listenable and well-produced dub. There will be those who will argue that it is one of the lesser Disney dubs (which I don't agree with), but even a so-called "weak" Disney-Ghibli dub is still better than 99.9% of the worst dubs around.
One thing I forgot to mention that in the dub, the ending song, "Kimi wa nosette" is the only vocal track in the Fletcher-Ghibli dubs that remains untranslated. Kiki handled its opening and ending songs by replacing them with sprightly pop/rock ditties by Sydney Forest (due to rights issues), while Mononoke seamlessly translated its two vocal tracks into English. Castle in the Sky does not attempt to translate the song into English, but, like Hisaishi's music, it received a major musical upgrade. The vocal is untouched, but the accompaniment has additional instruments, like a piano, xylophones, which makes the song more rich and fuller sounding. In fact, after listening to this revised version of the song, the original feels somewhat empty (although still beautiful overall). Too bad they didn't include this upgrade on the soundtrack album of the USA music; it would have made for a lovely way to close off the album just as it does the film. I wonder why they didn't bother to translate the song anyway?
I should also add that I have also seen the movie in Japanese. That was the first time I ever saw the film. While I enjoyed it then, it doesn't make me like Disney's version any less. On the contrary. I am aware of the differences, but I love both versions equally.
THE OTHER DUB (JAL/Tokuma)
Recently, I had a chance to take a look at the pre-Disney dub, not produced by Streamline, but distributed by them. This version was recorded by an unknown company at the commissioning of Tokuma. Produced for screening on international flights on Japan Airlines (JAL for short), this had a brief theatrical screening in 1989 in America before quickly disappearing into oblivion. The only legitimate release of this dub was on the Japanese R2 DVD. There have been a number of fans who say that this version surpasses the current one, but I didn't have the same response when I saw it. The only points this dub has is that it doesn't have the rescore or the sometimes overdone extra dialogue. On the other hand, though, the script itself is not very smooth and comes across as very stilted, with attempts at humor that sound either contrived or not very well written at all. Even with the one asset that it preserves the last part of Sheeta's speech, it isn't enough to make up for the choppy writing.
On that level, the voices sound plain wrong too. People have said Pazu and Sheeta's VAs are "absolutely perfect" compared to the newer dub, but I didn't feel the same way. In the older version, Pazu is played by Barbara Goodson, and as such, sounds higher pitched than James. There have some occasions when boys can be voiced by women without the audience realizing it (in fact, in Japanese, a woman plays Pazu). Unfortunately I didn't find this case to be particularly convincing: there is an obvious feminine quality to her tone which I found quite distracting. The older dub was recorded at a very fast pace, and as such, she comes across as though she doesn't know where to go with Pazu, as evidenced by the lack of enthusiasm in her delivery. Her attempts at conveying emotion, even during the most intense scenes, sounded very forced and unnatural, too. Had more time been spent on this old dub, I'm sure that Barbara could have turned in a much better performance; as such, this is one of Goodson's weakest roles, which is a shame considering that she has shown skill in other dubs.
Lara Cody as Sheeta tries to copy the vocal tone of the Japanese voice actress by raising her voice to an unnaturally high-pitch. There have been some cases where actresses can get away with this approach, but in this case, Cody sounded more strained than authentic to my ears. She also suffers from the same problem that Barbara's Pazu does: a lack of genuine emotion. Even her moments of desperation and screaming felt more forced instead of natural. I'm sure that Cody could have done a much better job if she was given the time to develop her character more properly.
Now I'm not saying Van der Beek and Paquin were "perfect" for these two characters, but I felt that both put more emotion into their performances, hence my preference for them. As far as Cody and Goodson are concerned, they could have done a solid job, but sadly, they didn't.
The real downer to the older dub are the performances of the rest of the cast. As Muska, Jeff Winkless just didn't give me the same creepy, chilling vibes as Hamill. His Muska sounds more like he's cold-reading off the script in an uncharismatic, monotonous voice. In doing so, he never comes across as genuinely evil or frightening, but extremely bored throughout. I've heard far better examples of "subtle evil" acting in many other dubs. It got even worse for me at the end when Muska unveils his true colors. While Mark goes all out during his psychopathic final guise (even showing hints of the Joker, to good effect), Jeff puts absolutely no energy or enthusiasm, still sounding as monotonous as ever. Case in point: after demonstrating Laputa's power and knocks Sheeta aside, he simply says "You little brat" very flatly, and his subsequent "Now you die" had me wincing; it was just like a bad episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The final confrontation scene is even worse; not only does Winkless continue talk like an emotionless robot, he says "Now say bye bye!" while pointing his gun at Sheeta. No matter how much force he half-heartedly tries to give the line, it doesn't change the fact that it brings unintentional humor to what should be a frightening moment. Hamill sounds much more natural and genuinely threatening with his "Now get over here!" Lastly, Jeff's final scream struck me as non-existant, and he doesn't put enough emotion to convey Muska's eventual fate; it simply sounds weak and ineffective. In the end, there really is no question over who is the better Muska — it's Hamill's show all the way. As with nearly everyone else in this older dub, Winkless just wasn't at his finest when he did this role.
On that note, even Dola (Rachel Vanowen) disappointed me. Her voice — which sounds like a scratchy June Foray as Granny from Looney Tunes — came across to me as unconvincing and unnatural; she simply screams her lines without any real personality. Even when Dola is supposed to be not so abrasive, there's still something about Vanowen's performance that sounded very off; it just sounds so stilted, almost as if she's reading off the page instead of acting. The overall effect of her performance was very hard on my ears and totally devoid of the charm that Cloris provides.
The pirate brothers (Eddie Frierson, Dave Mallow, and Barry Stigler) are given goofy-sounding cartoon voices. In doing so, however, Eddie, Dave, and Barry all forget to embue their characters with personality, and as such, they come across as rather generic and not even remotely funny. And this is from someone who generally likes these three guys. So for me, Mandy, Mike, and Andy excel as these characters for giving them more personality and not making them goofballs.
Even Uncle Pom was disappointing. For one thing, the tone of Ed Mannix's voice is reminiscent to the cartoony-sounding pirates, not an elder, which could be enough for the viewers to mistake him as one of Dola's boys! That his delivery lacks the charm Richard Dysart provides is also a problem.
The General actually doesn't sound too bad; Mike Reynolds sounds less scratchy than Cummings, but appropriately gravelly. For the most part, he acquits himself very well, but I still detected some stale dialogue and delivery, particularly "I... really hate secret agents!" which sounded strangely choppy and unnatural. His calling of "Where are you Muska?!" toward the end is also surprisingly lifeless and detached. If not for that, I would say that he's the best voice in the JAL dub; Cummings may be more recognizable, but he sounded smoother and less stilted from the start.
I found the incidental background voices to be either generic or, in several other scenes, completely non-existent, particularly in the case of the crowd noises (also known as "walla"). For instance, in the sequences where the coal miners witness a punching match between Pazu's boss and one of Dola's boys, there are obviously mouths moving from the crowd characters, but they don't make any sound, resulting in a bare, empty scene. The same is true for the climactic scenes where the soldiers are attacked by both the robot in the army fortress and the armada of robot soldiers at the film's climax. Even with the argument that the Japanese version was less chattier than Disney's, these obviously bare scenes only succeeded in emphasizing that the creative staff involved didn't really spend as much time as they could have; as such, I felt as though I was watching a badly dubbed kung-fu movie. (Granted, Disney's version does lay the walla on a little thick at times, but at least it doesn't sound anywhere nearly as "empty" as this old dub.)
As mentioned, the ADR script is not very smooth and comes across as very stilted, with some of the most inept-sounding lines I've ever heard in any dub. Just to give you an idea, let me provide you examples of the dialogue from this older dub and compare them to Disney's version:
JAL Pazu: "I'm as hard as a brick moppet if moppets were made out of bricks!"
Disney Pazu: "If my head were any harder, you could use it as a cannonball!"
JAL Muska: "The light is pointing to the center of the whirlwind. Laputa is in that wind. Did you hear me, we go straight forward. We're sure to find an entrance."
Disney Muska: "The light is pointing to the center of the whirlwind. Laputa is in that storm. I won't retreat. Now go straight ahead! And that is an order, Captain."
JAL Muska: "This place is where the throne room is, isn't that appropriate? Now say bye-bye!"
Disney Muska: "How appropriate that we've ended up in the throne room. Now get over here!"
In all fairness, the JAL dub script gets points for preserving the last part of Sheeta's speech, but the overall choppy flow of the dialogue and lack of thought for clarity ultimately kills that asset. Straightforward faithfulness alone does not a good script make. Some older dubs do stand the test of time, but JAL's Laputa, sadly, isn't one of them. It falls short compared to Macek's own My Neighbor Totoro and dubs of today, period. There are a number of fans who stand behind the JAL dub, but even with the argument that it is not as loose as Disney's version, I was still very disappointed with it. Needless to say, it's not worth the trouble of importing the Japanese DVD to own it unless you're a diehard fan.
So in short, aside from at least one controversial script alteration and occasionally unnecessary additional lines, Disney's dub of Castle in the Sky is the better English dub, not only in production values, but in overall flow. It's not a purist's dub, and it'll probably play better to people who are unfamiliar with this movie, but despite its faults, it's still a very listenable and competently-produced effort that offers charms of its own.