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.