Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Another Studio Ghibli film, another fun adventure film featuring a strong female lead. There is something to be said to what Ghibli has accomplished to this point in their canon, especially with the stylistic change of Grave of the Fireflies, and ultimately its massive artistic success. But with Kiki’s Delivery Service, we see a return to form of sorts with Hayao Miyazaki returning to the directors chair, directing a story about a young female character who spends time flying around and being a role model, forging her own path in life and being strong and independent. It sounds reminiscent of Nausiaa or Castle in the Sky, but really I find Kiki’s Delivery Service to actually be quite different from those films, even with all the similarities. For starters, the film is less dramatic and feels more grounded.

Or, well, as grounded as a film about a flying witch with a delivery service can be. I guess that is an indication of how comfortable the Ghibli world has become to me in such a short time. The creative team creates unbelievable, fantastic worlds which are miles away from reality, but which whisk us away for the pleasure of a great story, sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic, and oftentimes both. Kiki is a young witch about to embark on the tradition of spending a year on her own, honing her talent and making a path for herself outside of the family. Living in a more rural setting, she sets off with her black cat companion to find a coastal city, bustling with excitement. But when she starts her own delivery service (with the use of her speedy broom), she soon begins to see her powers as a witch wane as her self-confidence does the same. In order to bring pride to herself and her family, Kiki fights to find out what is important to her, and what inspires her to be the best witch she can be.

Kiki is a wonderful character, which goes a long way in the success and enjoyment of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Without a likable character in this role, the film would fall flat, as everything is contingent upon the audience rooting for Kiki’s success. Her struggles as a young adult setting out to make it on her own make for a great premise and is the central strength of the film. The lessons we learn from Kiki’s struggles, and ultimately her loss of powers are great. To see her work hard, have an enthusiasm for fending for herself and giving herself over to not just helping others but pursuing her passion is admirable. I give all the credit in the world to not just Miyazaki, but his team of filmmakers for crafting yet another memorable character to root for in this canon and specifically this Kiki universe where witches are a common thing and not looked down upon simply for being witches, like we’ve seen in so many other stories.

Kiki is placed into real world situations with the added premise that she is a witch, but otherwise this is just a coming of age story for young woman hoping to cross the bridge into adulthood. It wasn’t without its weaker points, however. Of course, as with any Ghibli film to this point, the drawbacks are small, and often do little to serve as a full detriment to the story being told. As was mentioned on the main Marathon page, I am watching the dubbed versions of these films, and I have finally encountered a case where the voice cast was distracting. In this case, that was Phil Hartman as Kiki’s companion black cat Jiji. His delivery took me out of things and felt awkward, which is sad given how much I typically appreciate Hartman’s other work. Similarly, the whole film just felt more slight in storytelling and subject matter than the other films to this point.

This qualm may simply be from an overload of greatness thus far with the previous four films being among the best animation films I’ve ever seen. But sometimes the lighter fare is the perfect buffer between something like Grave of the Fireflies and the next great entry into Ghibli’s renown canon. So to criticize Kiki’s Delivery Service as being less dramatic, or less impactful than those other great films is a bit childish, which means that in comparison, Kiki’s is not as good as the previous greatness, but still remains a highly entertaining and well told narrative, complete with a memorable central character worth rooting for. That is likely why, when I arrived to see the film at Gateway Film Center, I spotted three people dressed as Kiki, including even one adult with the signature oversized red bow in her hair. The joy Kiki brings to those around her, including fans, is what makes the Studio Ghibli canon so impressive.

*** – Very Good

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