by Jay Seaver
To describe any one movie by Hayao Miyazaki as his best is incredibly difficult; there are arguments to be made for both the complexity and maturity of his later works and the simple joy of where he started out. "Kiki's Delivery Service" is a part of the former group, and certainly one of my favorites of his work, a sweet, funny, beautifully told coming-of-age story for any age.Kiki (voice of Minami Takayama) has just celebrated her thirteenth birthday, and in witch families like hers that is the traditional time for a girl to set off for a new town, where she will spend a year living and training on her own. Kiki and her black cat Jiji (voice of Rei Sakuma) land in a pretty coastal town, where she puts her flying skills to use as a courier. Her first customer, Osono (voice of Keiko Toda), lets Kiki have a room above her bakery, and Kiki makes a number of other new friends: Ursula (also voiced by Takayama), an artist who lives in the woods; a sweet old lady (voice of Haruko Kato) and her maid Bertha (voice of Hiroko Saki); and Tombo (voice of Kappei Yamaguchi), a flight-crazy boy her own age who develops an instant crush on the new girl.
"One of Miyazaki's greatest, which makes it one of THE greatest."
But adolescence is a tricky thing; as one grows older, takes on more adult responsibilities, and grapples with new feelings, one stops believing in magic. Kiki is a nice girl, and she's landed with a pretty nice foster family, but like all teenagers, her confidence gets eroded by little things, and she envies the girls who wear stylish outfits while she is stuck in her drab, traditional black dress. Miyazaki's plotting is elegant in this regard; each new delivery and task Kiki faces is calculated to make the audience proud of the character but also plants a little more doubt in her mind. It winds up as both a character arc that rings true and a metaphor for one's body going haywire.
That's all under the surface, though; Kiki's Delivery Service is actually quite suitable for even very young children. That stuff never displaces the exuberant adventure that the film starts out with and carries through right until the end credits. Miyazaki's love of flight is ever-present here, and the scenes where Kiki, Tombo, and company take to the air are by and large thrilling enough to excite without ever being truly frightening - even the big, climactic sequence at the end should only have little kids holding their breath instead of covering their eyes. Other bits remind the audience of more cartoonish comedies, although Miyazaki is fairly gentle with his slapstick.
As per usual with Ghibli, the film is beautiful, although seldom in the elaborate, fill-every-inch-of-the-frame opulence of later animated features (this came out in Japan the same year The Little Mermaid came out in the US, and the big advances in digital coloring and elements were years away), though there is plenty of loving detail to Kiki's new town and a consistent design sense to the film's alternate-history Europe. The character designs have a rounded solidity - one just has to look at Osono, her husband, and Kiki's mother to see what solid anchors they are for Kiki, while Ursula is a primer on how to make a young girl curvy and attractive without making her a tiny-waisted caricature. Jiji and Kiki herself are great examples of how to use big, round faces and eyes to show the excitement and curiosity that are Kiki's main emotions, and how expressive Miyazaki can make them without changing a great deal. The voice acting - or, in some cases, the lack of it - is equally well-done, especially in the Japanese version (and though it's been a while since I sampled it, I recall that the English-language soundtrack on the Disney DVD does one of the better jobs of making the translation feel natural)."Kiki's Delivery Service" may not immediately seem as sophisticated as some of Miyazaki's later films, but in many ways, its excellence is just in different places; it tells a rock-solid story that anyone in the audience can enjoy, with practically every detail bringing a smile to the viewer's face. It's the rare film that not only does nothing wrong, but can appeal to virtually anybody.
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originally posted: 02/07/12 14:14:11