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KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE-- Retro Review

More Ghibli-brand, all-ages enchantment? Maybe not quite...

Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.) Read my take on MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO right here.

Maybe it’s because Ghibli strives for naturalism in fantasia that winds up demanding more realistic evaluation…

Maybe it’s because I had to babysit my nieces just a few weeks ago for Christmastime…

Maybe it’s because Miyazaki’s a master who intentionally evokes anxious feelings through simple strokes…

…but I couldn’t shake some concern for how dangerous a situation Kiki is so blithely unaware of being in throughout the duration of this seemingly-carefree, picaresque, all-ages adventure.

A 13-year-old girl runs off to a big city far away with alarmingly ill-defined career goals. She doesn’t know a single person in this city. She doesn’t have any relatives or family friends she can stay with. She hasn’t brought any supplies aside the scant few that fit into a wrapped handkerchief - - not even a change of clothes - - and she doesn’t even have a way to contact her parents if anything goes wrong.

Such a scenario draws to mind the opening of TAKEN and the earlier, scarier versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” that sought not to entertain young readers, but to simply caution them on the ghoulish threat of strangers lurking beyond the safety of home. At the risk of reading into this too seriously, it was hard not to find something a little worrying in how the grown-ups Kiki meets seem a little too eager to offer her lodging at their places. A throwaway joke her cat makes about one stranger wanting to trick her into posing for a nude portrait carries some unintentionally, but unavoidably, uneasy undertones along with all of that.

As with MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, I can’t help but read portions of this as the fantasies some child’s cooking up to cope with an unseen tragedy. Not much imagination is really required to see this as a vision playing in a young runaway’s mind as she leaves home, or when she’s remembering it in some skewed fashion in a fragile state years later. The portion where Kiki’s magic broom inexplicably stops working seems less a metaphor for her coming of age and more like the transcription of an anxious nightmare. You know, the one where you get the power to fly and then, suddenly, that power’s just cruelly cut down to some anemic ability to float a foot or two off the ground. Again, it’s as if the plot illustrates the escapist wishes of a troubled soul.

Perhaps these gaps seem like they'd fill out so morbidly because this movie’s world of teenage witches and practical magic is defined with such vexing sparseness. It’s many layers thinner than the complex universe of HARRY POTTER. Hell, it’s less defined than the mythos of BEWITCHED (even if Kiki seems like she sprouted from the author’s daydreams of what Samantha and Darrin's daughter would be like her teens).

Seriously, the whole plot gets going when Kiki abruptly decides she needs to leave Mom & Dad so she can live in the city for a year and “train to be a witch.” What exactly does that entail? Is some mentor going to teach her spells? Is she going to hole up in some belfry and place curses on random people walking below? It doesn’t sound like it’d consist of making bakery deliveries, at least, since Kiki’s never really even established as a dainty "good witch" to break the stereotype of the evil, wart-covered variety. It honestly feels more like a case of thin plotting than skillful minimalism.

I hate to come down on Kiki like this. She’s such a sweet girl, and there’s such amiable appeal to her soaring jaunts around on that broom (especially when she’s the one rescuing the cute boy during the dirigible disaster at the end.) Unquestionably, this movie has all the virtuoso artistry I've come to expect from Ghibli - - the level of animation that offers real people and real places to the viewer, not ink & paint approximation.

KIKI doesn't quite have the level of sophistication in its storytelling that I've also come to expect from Ghibli, though. If it was just kids' stuff, I'd give it an approving pat on the head. However, it carries with it the usual boast of entertainment adults can enjoy just as much as children - - and that boast doesn't let it have it both ways anymore during an evaluation like this. It's got whimsy to spare, sure, but that isn't enough to make up for the meandering in its plot.

Like TOTORO, the flick just sort-of cuts off after the aforementioned dirigible incident without much, of any, coinciding resolution or evolution. TOTORO got away with that without feeling unsatisfying because it never reached that far beyond its simple aims to capture childhood's halcyon blur of pretend and reality. This does reach outside the box, occassionally, and then withdraws quickly, idly uncommitted to answering some of the most basic questions it raises. When racked up next to other Miyazaki offerings, it feels like it reined CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO’s slapstick back to a safe and inoffensive degree and then employed PRINCESS MONONOKE’s understated approach to fantasy as a way to simply cover up a lack of detail.

KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE is still fine entertainment for the little'uns, don't me wrong (provided they get a little lesson in how Kiki's hastiness is a wee bit dangerous.) But it doesn't get past the young adult divide the way it hopes to.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

AgentJon Jan. 11, 2012 at 5:45 p.m.

Booooooooooooo. Can't say this very often Tom, but I completely disagree with you on Kiki. I didn't see it until I was 19, and when the film was over, I had one of those stunned silences that people get after they see something great. I've had several viewings since, and I still maintain it's one of the top 5 movies I've ever seen. BTW the reason she goes out is because every young witch does around that age (it's alluded to earlier in the film, when her mom talks about how she remembers the day she went out).

What I love about the movie is that it attempts something that, from what I've seen, is very rare in film. Kiki goes from an innocent young girl, to an angsty teenager, to a discovering who she is and what she wants. Her emotions are relatable, if (refreshingly) understated. There's a love story in this movie, but it's not the girl pining for some unrealistic perfect husband material; it's some nerdy boy that admires her and wants nothing more than to be able to fly with her. And she doesn't even like him, at least not at first. She's a 13 year old girl, and she's perhaps the strongest, most "real" female in cinema outside of "The Professional" (or maybe that's backwards, since "The Professional" I believe, came out a few years later).

Honestly, with all the great young protagonists Miyazaki has created, I almost wonder if anyone has felt like they were in the wrong body more than Michael Jackson. I mean that flippantly of course, but how he created such a fully realized character without having been in that situation himself is beyond me.

Dream moderator on Jan. 11, 2012 at 6:03 p.m.
You lambast one of my all-time favorite anime titles as just "entertainment for the little'uns"? Ugggghhh!
 
The movie's a coming of age tale about Kiki learning to live on her own while dealing with some of the typical woes of being a teen as AgentJ describes such as first love and desiring material things a teen would want. Unlike Totoro and Ponyo, there's a meaningful message that can actually be passed along to a viewer of any age and you have nothing but the internal conflict of Kiki's character coming at odds with what she desires for herself.  It's perfect family viewing without alienating older viewers as it also has elements to appeal to the latter as well about recalling their own awkward moments while growing up.
zaldaron Jan. 11, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.

I have to agree with tom here on this one. The understated emotions are not real! I don't know ANY teenagers who go through things as easily as she did and the plot does just meander. Yeah as a vision on how easy we might wish life was ok I can see that. But REAL? No shinji, as crazy overstated as his depression and emotion is, is closer to reality than the easy going way this works. We might wish life was this easy, but it isn't. Not his worst by far, but not up to the level of monokoe.

Dream moderator on Jan. 11, 2012 at 6:20 p.m.
@zaldar: How exactly were Kiki's ordeals not believable outside of the witch fantasy element? She wasn't some hapless archetypal gal from a dating sim spinoff like Clannad and Kanon. She had her expectations of what she was expecting from her new living conditions and learned to transition into her new life slowly as she had her issues and doubts with the town residents, some of them friendly and cooperative with her while others not behaving as she expected them to. Miyazaki's intent with Kiki's Delivery Service was simply to show the trials and tribulations of a young girl (Kiki) coming to age while living on her own, not showing the harsh reality of gaining personal responsibilities beyond your control like Eva pulled with Shinji.
Sprinter24on Jan. 11, 2012 at 6:29 p.m.

I could see how someone might not like Kiki. I remember seeing it when I was something like 16 or 17 and found it to be pretty much unwatchable.

But I saw it again when I was around 20 and loved it. So ... I don't think it's really a matter of age. I did watch it subbed that time by the way.

ThePickleon Jan. 11, 2012 at 7:02 p.m.

Fucking LOVE THIS MOVIE.

selbieon Jan. 11, 2012 at 7:57 p.m.

That's a very strange review. Does it really have to be anything other than a kids movie? Do witches always have to be warty old women or train in secluded academies?

Nearly all of the Miyazaki films I've seen involve the main character sometimes treading dangerous territory. What kids life isn't fraught with hazard and innocent mistakes?

zaldaron Jan. 11, 2012 at 8 p.m.

@Dream: not over the top enough. I mean when I was a teenager I had much less demand on me, but I was much more depressed much more angst filled and much less simple than is shown here. I WISH growing up was this easy but it really isn't at all. I mean give her at least one point where she feels like she can't make it and feels like she is going to kill herself. Movie was really to simple.

Dream moderator on Jan. 11, 2012 at 8:17 p.m.
@zaldar: People have different experiences with growing up and aren't always as you would think. From my personal experience, some are capable of adjusting reasonably well while having the occasional awkward and pressuring moments while others would feel all doom and gloom over the sudden changes they experience. It all depends on upbringing and the environment in which one grows up. In Kiki's case, it flows along with the former.
TopographicOceanon Jan. 11, 2012 at 9:04 p.m.

@zaldar said:

I don't know ANY teenagers who go through things as easily as she did

I never had any troubles as a teenager. At all. Hell, I thought the angsty/life is so hard stereotype was complete bunk. Key word there being 'thought'. Some people have it easier than others, and some people have a harder time. I realised, after I was a teenager, there is no true blueprint to being a teenager and that coasting through teen life and having a hard time of it are both common.

There is no rule saying growing up has to be hard, nor that you must feel you like you have to give up at any point. Can people feel like that while growing up? Of course! But that doesn't make it the rule. I never felt like that, so Kiki sure doesn't have to if they designed her to be that way.

geirron Jan. 12, 2012 at 1:30 a.m.

I hardly ever post here but damn, I had to voice my totally important disagreeing voice thingie even if this "review" is well-written and I could see why some might feel this way!

The first time I watched Kiki was a few years back, I was 28 and horribly depressed and Kiki was strangely uplifting and the sparse magic actually shown only served to peak the actual magic that I felt through the entire movie.

Now I'm married and way less depressed (hooray) and my wife had never seen it - and guess what - she loved it too, and so did I the 2nd time around and so have my friends, and hers, and we're all adult. Of course we're Scandinavians so we might still love movies where the main plot is basically a kid facing a challenge and overcoming it without being traumatized. It's pretty much the "Nordic cinema" I've grown up with when I think about it. From Lindgren's fables to other probably unknown writers and movie makers.

I've ended up seeing the movie about 5 times with different people and there's still that sense of wonder and calm among, in some cases rowdy people, that only a select few movie makers can do; and in my circles Miyazaki usually nails it and Kiki was no exception.

Of course I could only watch a few seconds of the English voice over version; the way they blatantly removed the charming opening song and replaced it with that droning pop music was insulting and wrrrrong! But that's dubbing and belongs to another world of tantrums and hurt.

Eyzon Jan. 12, 2012 at 5:37 a.m.

Easily one of my all-time favorites^__^

The music, the character designs, story, all... I just love this movie to pieces <3

@AgentJ said:

Booooooooooooo. Can't say this very often Tom, but I completely disagree with you on Kiki. I didn't see it until I was 19, and when the film was over, I had one of those stunned silences that people get after they see something great. I've had several viewings since, and I still maintain it's one of the top 5 movies I've ever seen. BTW the reason she goes out is because every young witch does around that age (it's alluded to earlier in the film, when her mom talks about how she remembers the day she went out).

What I love about the movie is that it attempts something that, from what I've seen, is very rare in film. Kiki goes from an innocent young girl, to an angsty teenager, to a discovering who she is and what she wants. Her emotions are relatable, if (refreshingly) understated. There's a love story in this movie, but it's not the girl pining for some unrealistic perfect husband material; it's some nerdy boy that admires her and wants nothing more than to be able to fly with her. And she doesn't even like him, at least not at first. She's a 13 year old girl, and she's perhaps the strongest, most "real" female in cinema outside of "The Professional" (or maybe that's backwards, since "The Professional" I believe, came out a few years later).

Honestly, with all the great young protagonists Miyazaki has created, I almost wonder if anyone has felt like they were in the wrong body more than Michael Jackson. I mean that flippantly of course, but how he created such a fully realized character without having been in that situation himself is beyond me.

Couldn't agree more with you on this one^^

Cloudenvyon Jan. 12, 2012 at 6:08 a.m.

@Eyz said:

Easily one of my all-time favorites^__^

The music, the character designs, story, all... I just love this movie to pieces <3

@AgentJ said:

Booooooooooooo. Can't say this very often Tom, but I completely disagree with you on Kiki. I didn't see it until I was 19, and when the film was over, I had one of those stunned silences that people get after they see something great. I've had several viewings since, and I still maintain it's one of the top 5 movies I've ever seen. BTW the reason she goes out is because every young witch does around that age (it's alluded to earlier in the film, when her mom talks about how she remembers the day she went out).

What I love about the movie is that it attempts something that, from what I've seen, is very rare in film. Kiki goes from an innocent young girl, to an angsty teenager, to a discovering who she is and what she wants. Her emotions are relatable, if (refreshingly) understated. There's a love story in this movie, but it's not the girl pining for some unrealistic perfect husband material; it's some nerdy boy that admires her and wants nothing more than to be able to fly with her. And she doesn't even like him, at least not at first. She's a 13 year old girl, and she's perhaps the strongest, most "real" female in cinema outside of "The Professional" (or maybe that's backwards, since "The Professional" I believe, came out a few years later).

Honestly, with all the great young protagonists Miyazaki has created, I almost wonder if anyone has felt like they were in the wrong body more than Michael Jackson. I mean that flippantly of course, but how he created such a fully realized character without having been in that situation himself is beyond me.

Couldn't agree more with you on this one^^

Agreed!

Booooooooooooo, Tom!

Dream moderator on Jan. 12, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.

Of course I could only watch a few seconds of the English voice over version; the way they blatantly removed the charming opening song and replaced it with that droning pop music was insulting and wrrrrong! But that's dubbing and belongs to another world of tantrums and hurt.

 
That little issue comes from the 2003 DVD release of the movie. From what I hear, the recent re-release from Disney in 2010 retains the movie's original music for the English dub track and gets rid of the English pop songs that were originally used for the dub.
l3reakon Jan. 12, 2012 at 8:21 a.m.

Hahahaha... you're actually serious, aren't you? At first I was sure this was some kind of joke review. I'm surprised you didn't complain that they never explained how she's able to levitate with just a broomstick. A complaint like that would be no more inane or irrelevant than any of yours.

If you really want to review fiction, you have to learn to immerse yourself in the world that's being presented, and, for just a few hours, live by the rules that world lives by. You could say that the mother in Ponyo is incredibly reckless, maybe even to the point of being an unfit mother, but that would be judging her by the rules of our world. You have to look at how she fits into the fiction presented. In that world, her actions make sense, and are helpful.

Hell, you may as well criticize Romeo & Juliet for being "melodramatic", or the Divine Comedy for being "unrealistic". I don't mean to be insulting, but I think you could really benefit by taking some literary or film criticism courses.

animebookworm7on Jan. 12, 2012 at 8:43 a.m.

this is soooo true, i enjoy these kinds of rents soooo BAD, even though i love the magic of the movie soooooo much!

Kiki can be very immature at times, and yes she could use a change of clothes but the thing is that's what Ghibli offers

a world where u don't have to worry about small details .But other then that , the fact that BOYS exist doesn't escape it the picture, just like all of miyazaki's picture innocent yet critical!!!!

but lets face it if they put ALL the details in it ,it would be like a anime Sabrina ran away from home and who needs another teenage witch sequel? ;)

RVonEon Jan. 12, 2012 at 8:48 a.m.

What? Are you joking? Trolling for hits maybe?

RobKennoon Jan. 12, 2012 at 9:10 a.m.

First time linking my username from Giant bomb to Anime Vice and have it been knownI done it just so I can comment on this crappy article. Kikis Delivery Service has got to be one of the greatest Animation films ever.

George_McBainon Jan. 12, 2012 at 9:21 a.m.

@RobKenno said:

First time linking my username from Giant bomb to Anime Vice and have it been knownI done it just so I can comment on this crappy article. Kikis Delivery Service has got to be one of the greatest Animation films ever.

And I did the same thing in reverse, choosing to comment because I REALLY agree with this article.

kadosho_16biton Jan. 13, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.

Everyone has a opinion with a title, even a classic has to face opposition sooner or later. Kiki I admit was a bit of a free-spirited character, but it did seem off that she didn't keep in contact like other characters did (as in returning home). Most of the studio's projects revolve around characters that would exist in reality, and a few that occasionally have a wild imagination. Aside from this review.. really? Just enjoy it for what it is, a piece of timeless animation, and a fun tale. Let reality leave your mind, and just chill.

Dig Deeper into Kiki's Delivery Service

A young witch-in-training settles down in a small town and starts a delivery service to make use of her inherited broom. Before long she begins to make friends, but after a blow to her self-esteem, Kiki loses her powers. Can she get them back in time to save a friend?

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