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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. 13, 2012 at 8:54 p.m.

@kadosho_16bit said:

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.

Your comment confuses me. She does return home at the end of the film, and how many of Ghibli's films are based in reality? Nausica, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spritied Away, Howl's Moving Castle?

zaldaron Jan. 15, 2012 at 11:22 a.m.

@TopographicOcean: I knew two people that killed themselves as teenagers, and I certainly considered it and the things I dreamed about doing to the people that I felt had wronged me. Yeah...they would make Hitler look tame. Teenage power fantasizes? Oh yes.

I found this show to be terribly unrealistic and ridiculous. Not one of his better efforts but then simple has never been my fav anyway.

TopographicOceanon Jan. 15, 2012 at 9:06 p.m.

@zaldar: I know a few people that did the same thing, and others that still struggle with issues from their time as a teenager. But I know just as many people, if not more, that didn't have such problems.

Being a teenager can be a horrible experience. However, that's just it; it can be a horrible experience. There is no rule saying you can't have a positive time as a teenager. That's all I'm saying.

zaldaron Jan. 17, 2012 at 7:45 a.m.

@TopographicOcean: If you say so everyone I know at a pretty terrible time. I mean we read lord of the flies in high school as freshmen (along with utopia, brave new world, 1984, and grapes of any of us survived without killing ourselves I don't know) and when the teacher was like "now it may not seem possible to you that human nature would go this way" the conscious of the class was "um no it isn't..we all just came from middle school...this is what it was like"

But as much as I like Miasaki this is not one of his better efforts for other reasons than just this as listed in the review. It certainly doesn't stand up to mononoke and I liked ponyo better (though many didn't like that one much I know).

TopographicOceanon Jan. 17, 2012 at 9:05 a.m.

@zaldar: I kinda envy what you got to read. We were stuck with pathetic Australian authors from some jingoistic notion that they have some kind of merit or what they've done hasn't been done before.

I like both Ponyo and Mononoke-Hime better than this movie though, I agree with you there.

zaldaron Jan. 17, 2012 at 11:15 a.m.

@TopographicOcean: couldn't tell from your profile page if you were from Australia or not but if so it would make some sense to read Australian novels. It was a tough year in that all those books really are depressing and it was a lot of material to read. Grapes of Wrath (being about the American depression) was especially depressing. You can still read them though and if you haven't I recommend it. Lord of the Flies I especially believe (much like heart of darkness) has a lot to say correctly about human nature.

Soupnazion Jan. 25, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.

I noticed one or two people putting the word review in quotation marks, and while I assume they did it because of disagreeing with the review, I'd do it because I'm not sure this qualifies as a review. I'm actually still looking for where you review the movie--it seems like you go on a bit about how it seems that Kiki's adventure could go very dark, and by the time you're done with that you're wrapping up the review.

So, that's an exaggeration, of course--but let's look at this. Your review is about 900 words long--in it, you make roughly three points, depending on one's definition of points. That's right, three. Which seems like a rather small amount for the review's wordcount.

So, first is the aforementioned darkness--that because Kiki's visit to the big city could have ended very wrongly (and, in our world, likely would have)... actually, you never seem to follow through with the point, instead just spending the first third of your review saying the movie could have been dark. Never mind that this is a completely fictional world with witches and everything, where obviously the people aren't nearly as horrible as those in our world.

Your second point is that the world is ill-defined, which is a point I disagree with (personally, I think that the details of witchery is irrelevant to the movie) but can accept, as it's your opinion that I can see the reasoning behind.

Your third point is that the plot is meandering, and thus is not "sophisticated." I honestly can't comment on this one, because you completely fail to define your terms. What about the plot isn't sophisticated? Because it doesn't follow a central narrative? Because of some un-described thing? When reading a review, I'd kind of like to have it explained to me why the subject material is good or bad.

Your debatable fourth point (as it's really more of a closing statement) is that the movie doesn't surpass the "for children" range. And once again, you fail to tell us why--as far as I can gather, the movie is for kids because it's not "sophisticated" and the plot "meanders." But I have no idea why.

So, all in all, I hardly even feel like calling this a review, because in the end I really don't have a better grasp over whether or not it's a good movie. If this was some sort of discussion or ramble about the movie, fine, but you're labeling it as a review and thus I want a review.

largeman29on Feb. 11, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.

I couldn't even read this entire review. It's atrocious. She didn't run away from home btw.

Is something severely wrong with you? It's a bit strange that anyone could have such horrid thoughts on this light-hearted fantasy movie. Seek help.

laylaandrewson Aug. 7, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.

Fascinating! I never thought about it, but now that you mention it it totally makes sense. She really is very trusting and innocent, although perhaps she lives in some charmingly simple parallel universe where people are genuinely good and creating a bicycle-airplane is easy. I love that this movie is so free-spirited and everyone's so nice and everything's so simple.

I recently realized that I'm pretty much exactly the same as Kiki but older and with curly hair. I wonder if I'm a little too trusting of people, because of this movie...

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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