Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is, of course, a thing of great visual beauty. Although the director’s work is casually lumped into the class of animated films called anime, his films nonetheless have a kind of fluidity of movement that is all too often absent in that genre. (Anime, which basically just means Japanese animation, frequently mixes fluid animation with an almost Hanna-Barberra-like crudity that causes the images to stand stock still like comic-book panels.)
Technically, Miyazaki’s films are anime, but they’re not like anybody else’s anime — and this movie is no exception. It’s also the gentlest and most sweet-tempered Miyazaki film I’ve seen — yet it’s not without the strange undercurrent of something slightly sinister that exists in all his works.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is the simple story of Kiki (voiced by Kisten Dunst in the English-language version), a 13-year-old witch who — according to tradition — must go out on her own and find her own town and complete her training. Accompanied by her familiar — a cat named JiJi (voiced by Phil Hartman) — she settles on a picturesque coastal village where, after a few bad starts, she falls in with a friendly baker (voiced by Tress MacNeille) who lets her set up her own business. And thus is born Kiki’s Delivery Service (what’s more natural than a delivery service for someone who can sport around on a broom?).
The business isn’t always easy and this allows the film to invent a number of comic — and not-so-comic — misadventures for its heroine. As usual in Miyazaki films, the characters tend to accept the most astonishing peculiarities — like the presence of a little-girl witch on a broom — without much trouble. Miyazaki’s films take place in a wonderfully fantasticated world of their own, so this approach isn’t unreasonable. And, as noted, there’s a strange tension to his films, a tone that suggests sinister motives may be present in some of the characters — notably the artist Ursula (voiced by Janeane Garofalo) and an elderly woman (voiced by Debbie Reynolds) — even though nothing of the sort may actually be afoot. It’s thematically intriguing, affording the viewer the same sense of wariness that would be inherent in the main character upon her first encounters.
Visually, the film never fails to enthrall, with several stand-out sequences and an impressively big climax involving a runaway dirigible. Kiki’s Delivery Service also has a good deal to say about the perils and insecurities of that awkward transitional period of the early teenage years. The film contains lessons on trust, friendship, relationships and the growing need for an independent sense of self; thus, I think it would especially appeal to that age group
Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t perfect. It’s a bit overlong, and I suspect it might benefit from being seen with its original Japanese soundtrack and subtitles — something impractical in a children’s film. It is, in any case, very worthwhile.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Pack Memorial Library will show Kiki's Delivery Service at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 in its own Lord Auditorium. Call 255-5203 for more information.]