Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Kiki's Delivery Service
Kiki comes from a family of witches and lives in a world that actually respects them. As custom mandates, she leaves her home and seeks a town in need of a resident witch. She finds a gorgeous, sprawling, and conveniently witchless city, and she sets up a flying delivery business. Yet it's not easy: Kiki isn't sure how to find her place in the busy metropolis, and she's even less sure of what to do when an earnest young aviation nerd shows an interest in her. Is she really cut out to be a witch?
Kiki's Delivery Service was not Hayao Miyazaki's movie at first. Based on the book by Eiko Kadono, the film initially rested with a team of younger animators at Studio Ghibli. Yet the project hit snags, and Miyazaki, as he often does at his studio, stepped in and took over. Kiki's Delivery Service found him securely established as a director, with the experience of Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, and Totoro behind him. He knew precisely what to do with the movie, and it shows.
Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl, at that perfect age for discovering boys and hating middle school. But Kiki is also a witch, and tradition requires that she leave home and practice her craft elsewhere for a year. Kiki's practically bursting to spread her wings—she packs her bags, grabs her pet cat Jiji, hops on her broom, and soars off into the night with her family and neighbors wishing her well. After weathering a lightning storm and a chat with a condescending upperclassman witch, Kiki arrives at Koriko, a gorgeous seaside hybrid of cities that Miyazaki admired. It's part Stockholm, part Adelaide, part Gotland, and brimming with the director's love for peaceful European design. It's a place where houses cluster like sleeping hamsters, umlauts dot the shop signs, and buses putter around alongside little three-wheeled machines. Kiki is instantly smitten with the place, and she's delighted to find that it doesn't have a witch-in-training.
Her new home isn't without its challenges. Kiki starts up a delivery business and moves into an adorable bakery's spare room, but carrying presents and packages all over town proves harder than she thought. And there's a larger problem brewing. A witch she may be, but Kiki is still a girl on the edge of growing up, and she isn't sure where she fits into this bustling, friendly, nicely attired city. Her jobs as courier and bakery-minder leave her busy. All of the girls her age have prettier dresses and nice parties. A young man named Tombo seems just as interested in Kiki as he is in her ability to fly, but she has no idea quite how to respond. She's at a fragile time of life, and being in a strange new city isn't helping.
The true test of a good storyteller lies in making a routine tale a magnificent one. Kiki's Delivery Service is, in base elements, a mundane chronicle of one girl's first steps into adulthood. Kiki sets off on her own, Kiki makes friends, Kiki faces hardships, Kiki performs a daring rescue, and Kiki realizes a few necessary things about herself. It's also an immensely safe movie. In contrast to Ghibli's prior films, there are no exploding airplanes, no invading armies, no harrowing visions of wartime Japan, no innocent scenes of a family sharing a bath…nothing that would offend anyone beyond the thinnest-skinned megachurch bluehairs who see the devil's face in Lego playsets. That's likely why Disney picked it as the first Ghibli film they'd release in North America. The closest it comes to a villain is a brief delivery to a girl who doesn't appreciate her grandmother's herring pies.
In Miyazaki's hands, however, Kiki's Delivery Service is nothing short of amazing. It's a beautiful film for starters. Gentle details and music fill Kiki's flights and minor hardships, whether she's hiding in a hay-filled hammock or dodging angry crows. Koriko is the crown jewel of the film, an instantly charming urban pastiche from a world too happy to fight either World War. And it's not just pretty surface. There's a wondrous, delicate enthusiasm to Kiki's shaky flight away from home, an honest trepidation around her as she tries to understand just what grown-ups are all about and how she'll become one. Miyazaki gives each moment marvelous touches. When Kiki sulks into bed after missing a party, it's heartbreaking. When she grabs a janitor's broom and enchants it for the most important ride of her life, it's more exciting than a million alien invasions shattered by a million giant robots.
Kiki's Delivery Service is breezy and precious, but it's also subtle. That's an odd thing to say for a film that sticks its heroine with a talking cat, but it's true. Jiji voices many of Kiki's worries and insecurities, moreso when he stops talking to her. The film may get too cute at times; Kiki's visit to two nice elderly women runs a little long. Yet it's all kept away from melodrama. Even when Kiki hangs out with Ursula, an artist who reminds her that being special isn't as important as being honest with yourself, the message is never rammed home. Miyazaki even takes care to end the film right after its biggest moment, leaving just the right questions unanswered. And that gives the film its pitch-perfect tone. Kiki may be a witch seeing her childhood end, but her tale has just as much resonance for adults. That's another mark of a good storyteller.
Jiji remains an interesting part of that tale, one that differs from one voice track to the other. In the original Japanese performances, Rei Sakuma gives the little black cat a perky, childish tone that embodies Kiki's youth—and disappears when she faces the demands of maturity. In the English version, Phil Hartman plays Jiji as the opposite: a wisecracking, cynical guide for a witch fresh out of the nest. Yet Hartman's performance, aside from being rather funny, serves the same theme. Even as a grouchy mentor, Jiji is another part of Kiki that she doesn't need so much as she gets older. Kiki's Delivery Service marked Disney's first time dubbing Miyazaki, but it's no less impressive than their later efforts. Directed by Jack Fletcher, it gets excellent work out of Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, Matthew Lawrence as Tombo, and Janeane Garofalo as Ursula, while more experienced voice actors like Tress MacNeille and Kath Soucie take up other major characters. Still, it's not the entire dub that you might remember if you bought Kiki's Delivery Service in its initial VHS and DVD release.
As with Castle in the Sky, Disney's new Kiki's Delivery Service Blu-Ray retains the trimmed-down dub from the 2010 DVD release. It ditches the opening and closing English pop songs and edits out some lines from the 1998 treatment, probably because those lines didn't exist in the original Japanese dialogue. In one key example, Tombo's friends (including the pie-hating girl Kiki previously met) worry that they've hurt Kiki's feelings after interrupting the two of them at the beach—in the revised dub and the Japanese track, they say nothing. Jiji's also a little more quiet. His “don't panic” rainstorm advice is gone, as is his telling Kiki that some birds are “Calling You an egg-stealer and you don't want to know what else.” The new release ends his line right after “egg-stealer.”
Was the mere implication of avian profanity too much for Ghibli or Disney? A few of the dub's embellishments change the tone, particularly when Jiji and Kiki drift apart, but most of them only add to the film. It's a shame the Blu-Ray can't have an alternate track with the original dub (or the old Streamline treatment). Jiji was among Hartman's last performances, and it's a real loss to remove some of that.
Kiki's Delivery Service often drifts to the side when everyone rounds up their favorite Studio Ghibli films. It's not as raggedly engaging as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, as respected as Spirited Away, as unmistakably personal as Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises. Yet few of its kin are as comfortably accomplished; the film does precisely what it wants to do, and it does it all with a restrained, unshakeable charm. That makes it one of the best achievements in the Ghibli catalog.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ An expertly crafted, beautifully animated story that should resonate with anyone
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