Kiki's Delivery Service (impressions)
This page contains links to critical and fan reactions to the film Kiki's Delivery Service.
Please visit Rotten Tomatoes for an exhaustive list of US-based reviewers.
2 December 2003
By Daniel Thomas MacInnes
At one point during Kiki’s Delivery Service, a young artist was explaining what motivates her to paint. In so many words, she explained that, yes, she could have followed the same commissioned works everyone else makes, but she chose instead to create her own, original, art. When I heard this, I thought to myself, is Miyazaki speaking straight to the audience about himself? Was he afraid his audience wouldn’t understand such a lighthearted, simple gem?
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 landmark film, was a serious sci-fi adventure with a strong environmental theme and brilliant action set-pieces; Castle in the Sky, in 1986, mixed adventure, romance, and screwball comedy; 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro was a pristine, nostalgic childhood fantasy. On first glance, Kiki’s Delivery Service seems slight; almost trivial. Even after viewing all of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, I felt reservations towards what I expected was just a “kid’s movie.”
What I discovered was one of the most charming, joyous films I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t remember a movie that consistently surprised me as much as this one; Kiki’s is the rare coming-of-age movie that connects with people on both sides of adolescence. The story – based on a popular children’s book in Japan – is about a young witch who ventures from her village and strikes out on her own. The girl, Kiki, wears a dark mop of hair with a red bow, and is confident, strong-willed, determined to prove herself in the world. She’s a teenage Audrey Hepburn in a Frank Capra picture.
On her 13th birthday, Kiki is required to spend a year away from home to study her skills, in the family tradition, so she flies off and finds a coastal city with a romantic, European flair. One of the jokes in the movie is that Kiki doesn’t have any witch skills; all she knows is how to fly a broom, and even that can be shaky. There’s a wonderfully funny moment when she takes off from her home, with friends and family waving her off. There’s a long buildup, and then she suddenly darts off, crashing into the nearby trees before gaining control. One of the villagers remarks that he’s going to miss hearing those bells on the trees, and you realize that’s because she crashes every time she takes off.
Miyazaki always sprinkles his films with a sense of humor, but he’s never been as openly silly as here. The jokes come one after another, and there’s such great joy in the setups that you can’t help but smile. And the humor avoids the typical cartoon slapstick you get most of the time; the humor is firmly rooted in its warmth and humanity.
This is, I believe, Miyazaki’s greatest talent; he truly loves to tell stories, and his stories come out of a deep well of his hopes and his experiences. His films may be animated, but they are as emotionally real as the best live-action movies. He loves the movie medium, and you know he would shoot live actors if he wanted to, but using those wonderful impressionist watercolor landscapes is far more his style. Miyazaki is a true artist in an age when movie art is an endangered species.
Kiki’s first steps toward adulthood resonate for me because of those qualities. I can relate to her efforts to find a place to live, to start her own delivery business, to fit in with a city full of strangers who’ve never seen a witch on a broomstick, to fit in with the popular, pretty, stuck-up girls. When Kiki feels awkward in her black dress and longs to look like the popular kids, she feels helpless, and who hasn’t felt like that? Sometimes, there really isn’t much you can do anyway, and you know you have to believe in yourself, but you'll still be an outsider.
Of course, she does make friends with her good charm, including an expectant mother who runs a bakery (and takes Kiki under her wing), the silent bakery chef, the young adult artist, and a young boy who is immediately smitten and becomes something of a kindred spirit. He shares his love of flying, takes Kiki on a ride on his propeller-bicycle (one of the movie’s high points), and gets caught hanging from a wayward zeppelin in a climax that parodies the Hindenburg and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last.
So, why the reservations that Kiki’s Delivery Service was just another “kid’s movie?” Those reservations only reflect the endless abuse I’ve suffered at the hands of American animation. In America, the word “animation” means “babysitter,” and Disney’s formulaic assembly line of patronizing, simple-minded cartoons. Cartoons-slash-corporate tie-ins, if you really want to be bold. This endless conditioning means, of course, that virtually no animated movies in this country are aimed at an older audience, or at least treat its audience like adults. Everything gets dumbed down for Rod and Todd Flanders (or maybe it's Ned...now there’s a topic to pick up).
The key to enjoying Kiki’s – and I think this really is the lynchpin of it all – is one word: subtitles. Disney’s earlier English dubs for Kiki’s and Castle in the Sky were noisy, intrusive, and seemingly determined to kill any sense of mystery; everything is shouted out loud. To be fair, Disney brought solid actors for the voice parts, including Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman (in his final role), but the dubbing is a little syrupy and overdone. The new DVD release finally allows Western audiences to hear the original Japanese soundtrack, and the film is considerably better for it. The images are allowed to shine and flow freely, and silence is used as wonderfully as in Totoro. Silence, after all, is one of Miyazaki’s gifts; to sit back and enjoy the images, watching scenes play out at just the right tempo. His quieter voice unveils itself between the beats, and it soars.
Sound On Sight
29 October 2014
By Jake Petre
In a month full of horror and malevolent covens and blood-curdling scares, I offer now the soothing respite of Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful and serene Kiki’s Delivery Service. Possibly Miyazaki’s most under-appreciated film, it is surely his most modest, which I mean as a compliment. It is the epitome of Miyazaki’s quiet filmmaking, letting the soft emotion and warm aesthetics of the animation do most of the talking. The fact that Kiki is a witch is beside the point, because this is a coming-of-age story for a young girl committed to helping others but forgetting about herself.
Coming-of-age films for girls are rare enough as it is, and with Kiki’s Delivery Service coming as it did in 1989 and treating the subject with such earnest compassion (as Miyazaki’s films always treat their young female characters), it shines for its genuine honesty in dealing with the subject through the complex lens of Kiki’s character. Kiki is not perfect, and neither is the world around her. She is hotly jealous of the rich girls in the community, and is helpful to others to a fault. In her self-examination, she finds her flaws and learns to embrace them.
It’s a film that is honest about its protagonist, and interested in the spectacle that can be found in quiet soul-searching within gorgeous seaside villages (magnificently animated, as always with Studio Ghibli). It also lacks an antagonist, or really much conflict at all. A significant part of the film’s charm is how effortlessly engaging it is while remaining so amiable and low-maintenance. It’s the rare film that can be described as perfect to fall asleep to and have it be a positive assessment. This only means that it has such beauty, and such an easygoing and pleasant manner, so that you can get lost in this idealized world and fall into a sublime daze.
The film is very much about Kiki’s vulnerability. As a witch, she must go out on her own and learn to be independent as a kind of training. The parallel of normal young girls (and boys) moving away from home is obvious. She is in a vulnerable state as she tries to settle into this self-reliance, and to encounter the real world and its many problems waiting to be solved. Her doubts about herself, especially after losing her ability to fly, are tantamount to understanding the film’s message about vulnerability. By taking on the help of others (for once), she realizes that she can learn from her vulnerabilities and that sometimes it’s okay to accept the assistance of others, without sacrificing your independence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t a horror film whatsoever, but it does have a standing within the history of witchcraft in film. Witches are most often associated with black magic and the occult, but there is a certain subgenre of witches as healers (usually referred to as “white witches”, which I will leave there without comment). They are often witch doctors, entrenched in a medical history of women healers being demonized by the industrial monopolization of healthcare over the last few centuries. This has manifested itself in films as varied as White Witch Doctor (1953) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). It’s in this vague tradition (focusing on the healing and helping, not the possible aura of evil) that Kiki’s witchcraft follows in, married with some more common witch stereotypes out of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, like Kiki’s talking black cat, Jiji, and her ability to fly on her broomstick.
Witchcraft, as ever, is used as a framing tool in order to tell the real story about Kiki finding out about herself. Her character is beautifully written, arguably with more nuance and warmth than perhaps any other animated character before or since. By starting up her delivery service, she takes the initiative to use her gifts for good and to establish herself as a self-sufficient girl in the real, adult world. Thankfully, most of the people she meets are just as kind-hearted and delightful, so her journey of self-discovery is more ambiguous until she starts to lose her powers. She falls into a depression, feeling lost and without a purpose, mirroring her lack of confidence and fear of being out on her own. That is, until it’s up to her to save the day, and she simultaneously gets her ability to fly back and does away with her self-doubt. She continues to be unable to talk to Jiji, though (in the original version of the film), suggesting her steady move into adulthood.
Kiki, in other words, wants to find her individuality, but within the structures that exist in her community and her culture (whether in terms of witches or Japan). She is encouraged to go out on her own, but she makes the choice. She is reluctant to accept the help of others and lacks self-awareness for when she needs it, but ultimately realizes her mistake. She is wrangling with this idea of herself, with her identity and who she wants to be, at times sure of herself and at others, not so much. It’s a balance we all deal with, made all the more pertinent when she begins to lose these products of her childhood and her past innocence (talking to Jiji), all she’s known until now, as part of that grappling. We may not suddenly realize we can no longer talk to our cat, but we certainly run headfirst into things that are no longer acceptable once you grow up, or new things that are now your responsibility. We see Kiki in ourselves, and she is so resourceful, so warm, so happy and confused, barrelling toward adulthood with all the grace of a Miyazaki girl, poised and strong, ready to take on the entire world.
13 March 2015
For years, Kiki's Delivery Service fans have been flocking to an unlikely location—Tasmania's Ross Village Bakery, which fans think bears an uncanny resemblance to the bakery in the film.
The pilgrimage became such a popular destination that a few years ago, one of the owners' mothers decorated the upstairs loft to resemble Kiki's room from the movie. Inside the room, a guest book allows visitors to record their experiences and impressions, with some scribbling messages about visiting "Kiki's room."
Of course, while the extra business is welcome, it's also increased the staff's workload. According to co-owner Carl Crosby, "Sometimes we're just too busy to let them see the room or too busy to let them see the oven."
The bakery has been at its current site for over 100 years. Its wood-fired oven, which resembles the one seen in Kiki's Delivery Service, has the capacity to bake 300 loaves of bread at a time.
For more, check out this piece from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.