“Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) Review

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki; Kirsten Dunst, Matthew Lawrence, Janeane Garofalo
[4 out of 4 stars]

Where Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films excel, and even soar past their Disney equivalents, is in capturing not only the narrative but also the atmosphere of fairy tales. The subtle surrealism, the blend of magic and reality, and the quirkiness of worlds which seem at the same time more inviting and more dangerous than our own: these are the major tenets of fairy tales and of Miyazaki’s filmography. His worlds, especially in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), demand imagination and suspension of disbelief.

Kiki (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who has to complete her year-long independent training to fulfill her requirements to become a full-fledged witch. She leaves her parents in a small village and flies to a city on the coast of a country loosely based on Germany, where she struggles to fit in as a normal teenager. As a witch, Kiki must find her talent and live independently. After using her broomstick to return a baby’s pacifier to a distraught mother, she establishes a flying delivery service with the help of Osono (Tress MacNeille), a pregnant baker. As she settles in, she meets Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), a young boy who is as infatuated with her as he is with her ability to fly. The film, whose relatively simple plot moves at a pleasant pace, leads Kiki on adventures with her sarcastic black cat, Jiji (Phil Hartman), throughout the city, giving Miyazaki the chance to show off his artistic talents: as we fly with Kiki over the bustling city by the sea, the imagery captures both the living quality of civilisation and of nature.

Although not quite surreal, Miyazaki’s films offer no justification for their events: Kiki loses the ability to fly one day, but this is not due to a foolish decision or character flaw, nor does she mistakenly accept an apple from an evil witch. Like Miyazaki’s other masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), this film has no real villain and no forced lesson. Kiki’s may be a coming-of-age story, but this process is shown, despite its inclusion of magic, to be natural rather than dangerous. Events, like people, come in waves, disappearing and reappearing without ulterior motivation – Osono, for example, is somehow omnipresent and yet absent until she is needed – and there’s something beautiful in this. Miyazaki’s narratives are stories, not plots, allowed to grow naturally.

Flying, often a metaphor for freedom, is a theme in many of Miyazaki’s films, including Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Like a bird leaving the nest, Kiki literally flies away from her home in search of a new life, and her process of learning how to fly – a sink or swim mentality – and the necessity of having to relearn, practice, and struggle with flight, captures the arc of the coming-of-age story without being too heavy-handed. Kiki’s loss of flight is not a punishment, but a natural step in her development. This is explained in a touching scene in a cabin in the forest, when Kiki visits her friend Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), an aspiring painter. Ursula teaches Kiki a life lesson about spirit and individuality: “That same spirit is what makes me paint and your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.” These words seem aimed more at us than at Kiki, who, of course, finds her inspiration and learns to fly again.

Miyazaki decides to loosely base his film in a time when flying is in the public consciousness: interwoven into the main story is a background plot about an Hindenburg-like airship, which suffers a similarly unfortunate fate. For Tombo, his bicycle-flying contraption represents a chance to escape, to explore a world beyond. He stubbornly pushes ahead, trying to keep up with the changing world: it’s no coincidence that he is literally carried away while desperately trying to hold down the escaping airship. In some ways, the fate of this airship represents the conflict present in other parts of the film between traditionalism and modernity, like the advent of railways in European novels. The town where Kiki lives is a traditional one: there are no department stores, and the presence of witches is not something to be feared. Transportation, including automobiles, streetcars, bicycles, and airships, is really the only modern element in the town, and the film is not limited in its representation of crashes involving these machines. One of Kiki’s greatest strengths is her ability to remain confident in who she is despite the changing world around her: although she longingly looks at the fancy dresses worn by the popular girls in town, she ultimately rejects their materialism and is happy to wear her mother’s purple dress.

It’s well known that Miyazaki hand-draws most of his films, supervising each frame personally.  As opposed to digitally-created films, the moving images in Kiki’s Delivery Service can feel a little stilted, but the trade-off is in the colour: Miyazaki’s oceans are bluer and his forests greener than life, adding to the beauty of the fairy-tale atmosphere. But even more than his nature, his industrial images are what attracted me. I was particularly stunned by the overhead shots of the streets of the city, which blend details like individually-drawn bricks on towers and chimneys with the broad brush-strokes of trolley carts in the distance. This intense detail, contrasted with the rich colours, recreate perfectly the visual sensation of a medieval city adapted to modern life. Miyazaki’s painted world is visually and emotionally inviting: finishing Kiki’s Delivery Service feels like waking from a delightful daydream.

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