Kiki's Delivery Service Review
Made in 1999, Kiki’s Delivery Service currently occupies the midway point in Hayao Miyazaki’s career. Coming after (amongst others) Nausicaä, Laputa and My Neighbour Totoro, but before Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, the film appears to slot itself easily into this oeuvre. As with each of these titles it shares fantastical concerns and a young female protagonist, yet at the same time doesn’t feel like a major work. There’s none of the epic design, political concerns and complex morality codes of Nausicaä, say, or Mononoke, but a cuter, smaller scale feel. Indeed, Kiki’s was the first of Studio Ghibli’s ventures to be acquired by Disney, a little sliver of information which should demonstrate its wider, more immediate appeal. Moreover, the fantasy elements are comparatively watered down meaning that Kiki herself is a 13-year old witch with a talking cat, but otherwise situated in a modern world populated by ordinary folk, not to mention televisions and traffic jams.
As you’d expect from Miyazaki, this contrast between modern life and more mythical concerns forms a strong part of the narrative. When witches reach their teenage years, we are told, they must head out on their own for a year’s worth of “training”. In Kiki’s case she wishes to live by the ocean and so flies off on her broomstick, with cat in tow, to a large town clearly intended to represent the world at large. International in flavour, it shares the contours and tramlines of San Francisco, a score which puts us in mind of Paris, and an animation style akin to the pan-European flavour of Miyazaki’s earlier The Castle of Cagliostro. Similarly the setup owes itself to various sources: in part it’s another variation on the Town Rat, Country Rat model, whilst there are also elements of Little Red Riding Hood in its tale of pubescent girl confronted by the forces of an adult world. That said, Miyazaki never goes quite as far Angela Carter, say, on this count, rather his reference points are more implicit and certainly not laboured.
It's a lightness of touch which is key given that, even though we’re dealing with a relatively minor work, Miyazaki remains a filmmaker of considerable skill. The delivery service of the title, which Kiki establishes upon reaching her destination, could have lead to a lumbering narrative punctuated by episodic occurrences and set pieces, yet the film floats by light as a feather. Certainly, it is episodic and the story does progress delivery by delivery, but in focussing on the details such concerns never become a problem. It’s the tiny moments which make Kiki’s the delight that it is: the hazardous broomstick take-offs which see our little heroine perilously bounce off trees; the old maid Brenda and her assertion that she’s “the adventurous type”; or Jiji the talking cat and his own moderate share of the narrative in which pretends to be a stuffed toy. (As an aside, it’s also great to see Jiji as a wise-cracking, eyebrow-raising sidekick who doesn’t need the Disney-esque grandstanding voice à la Sebastian in The Little Mermaid or Mushu in Mulan; sometime less is considerably more.)
Furthermore, this abundance of little moments and tiny incidents works all around and effortlessly deals with any potential problems. Kiki, for example, is thoroughly cute, thoroughly innocent and, in the words of the script, “an absolute angel”, yet at the same time she never becomes a mere cipher. Miyazaki’s far too clever for this and so repeatedly fleshes her out with more three-dimensional touches. Indeed, she often comes across as a genuine young girl, as concerned with boys and what dress to wear as she is with witchcraft and doing selfless deeds. Likewise the narrative trajectory is essentially familiar and perhaps even predictable, but again not a problem for our director. Miyazaki’s greatness lies in the fact that he can make this type of film – one that is remarkably easy going and very small seeming – in such a perfectly formed manner. In its own way Kiki’s is just as controlled and expertly fashioned as his more elaborate works, the Nausicaäs and Spirited Aways, even if it may not seem as such on the surface. Indeed, it seems a shame that here in the West our attempts at producing “tweeny” entertainment amount to nothing more than appalling Lindsey Lohan and Hilary Duff vehicles when we’ve had a fine model such as this available for almost twenty years.
As with all of Optimum’s Ghibli titles to date, save for Spirited Away that is, Kiki’s Delivery Service is yet another NTSC-PAL conversion. That said, it’s not quite as disappointing as all that given the image retains its clarity and colour scheme, whilst the ghosting is only genuinely noticeable during any panning action. Furthermore, we’re also getting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced and taken from a spotless print. Oddly, it’s only the closing Japanese credits which look a little worse than wear – in fact I’m tempted to say that they’ve come from a video source such is their appearance.
As for the soundtrack, here we find two choices: the original Japanese DD2.0 mix plus the US dub prepared by Disney, again in DD2.0 form. In both cases, they sound technically fine: crisp, clear and handling the music with ease. For a discussion of the differences then please refer to Bex’s review of Buena Vista’s now deleted Region 2 UK release which can be found here. More importantly, the subtitles also appear to offer both the original translation and ‘dubtitles’ (the latter in hard of hearing form). Note, however, that they are also of the yellow variety, which may be a turn-off to some.
The extras similarly follow the pattern set by previous Optimum releases inasmuch as we get a whole host of trailers for the film and the rest of Ghibli’s output (all original Japanese), full storyboards available as a multi-angle function and little else besides. Indeed, the only other addition is a brief, wordless featurette entitled ‘Ursula’s Painting’ which allows us to take a closer look at the artwork which occupies a small part of the story.