Review by Ed Nguyen

Voices: Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Keiko Toda, Kappei Yamaguchi
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Disney
Features: "The World of Ghibli", John Lasseter introduction, storyboards
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: March 2, 2010

"There are still times when I feel sad, but all in all, I sure love this town."

Film ****

For the past twenty years, Japan's Studio Ghibli has been discreetly churning out arguably the finest traditional cel-animated films around.  Many of those films have been directed by the studio's co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, and they rank among the most commercially successful movies in Japanese cinema, animated or not.  In fact, Miyazaki has frequently been described as Japan's answer to Walt Disney.  So, it is perhaps not a coincidence then that the Disney company, after acquiring the U.S. distribution rights to many Studio Ghibli films, has released Miyazaki's last two celebrated films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, here in America.  In the spring of 2003, Disney also got around to releasing two of Miyazaki's earlier films onto DVD -  Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service.  The release of these films on DVD coincided with that for Spirited Away, and all three are superb examples of Miyazaki at his best.

The secret of a Miyazaki film is that at its core, it always contains a heart-warming, family-friendly tale.  While current American animated films typically seem lost in their generic scripts of contemporary gags, forced comic relief, and flashy but meandering action sequences, the Miyazaki films favor a more low-key approach that emphasizes the stories and their characters.  Even when situated in a fantasy setting, Miyazaki's characters react realistically and honestly.  Such is the case in Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Miyazaki's glowing tale of the passage from childhood into early independence.

Based on a book by Eiko Kadono, Kiki's Delivery Service follows the misadventures of Kiki, a young girl who also just happens to be a little, teenaged witch.  Kiki has recently reached the milestone of her thirteenth birthday.  It is her rite of passage, and in accordance with family traditions, Kiki must now journey into the world for one year of training to hone her craft.  It will be a period of self-discovery, of learning to be self-reliant.

The approaching day of departure thrills Kiki.  As the film first introduces her, she is lying casually on a grassy meadow, listening intently to the daily weather forecasts on a radio.  When she hears the prediction of clear and calm skies on the night of the full moon, Kiki knows that her day has finally arrived.

She is excited at the prospect of exploring the world on her own, yet she is frightened by it as well.  Her reactions are typical of a young girl's as she wonders about what she will find and how other people may react to her.  Donning a witch's traditional black robe before her mirror, Kiki sighs because the robe isn't very pretty.  Before departing home, she asks her father for one last hug and one last spin.  These touching little scenes help to define Kiki's nature.  In fact, Miyazaki has filled his film with many simple gestures - a daydreaming stroll, a wayward glance, tiny curtsies to strangers, which quietly help to establish Kiki's personality.  Kiki is believable as a real character, a young girl with her self-doubts but also with her soaring hopes, and not just as another generic, cookie-cutter animated heroine.

On the fateful evening, Kiki flies away into the twilight sky.  Her little black cat, Jiji, is her only companion, but Kiki is traveling with the best wishes of her proud parents and her friends back home.  Coincidentally, Jiji is not just an adorable pet but also a wise friend, offering Kiki friendly words of advice from time to time.

Kiki's travels eventually bring her to a quaint, coastal town.  It is the very picture of Ye Olde English Village, complete with cobblestone alleyways, bakeries, and even a bell tower in the town center.  The cars have a very antiquated appearance to them as well.  However, witches are apparently not so unusual in this world, so Kiki's arrival by broomstick does little more than raise a few eyebrows.  In this new town, people are simply indifferent to her.  In addition, Kiki is even admonished by a policeman for haphazardly flying around and nearly receives a traffic ticket!  It is not quite the good first impression that Kiki wanted to give her newly-adopted home.

As Kiki continues to wander the town (by foot, now) and puzzles over what to do next, she has the good fortune to encounter a kindred spirit in Osono, a warm-hearted baker woman.  Osono likes Kiki's bright and cheerful outlook and offers her an attic room in which to stay.  Osono is Kiki's first friend in her new town, although Kiki will eventually win over many more with her bubbly personality.

As a witch, though, Kiki doesn't have any particularly special skills.  Her only real talent is flying, even if she has a penchant for crashing into trees.  Nevertheless, Kiki is nothing if not optimistic.  Soon after settling in Osono's attic, she announces how she will approach her training - with the help of her broomstick, Kiki will start up her own delivery service!

The remainder of the film is devoted to Kiki's comic misadventures in delivery, with the suspense arising from seeing if Kiki can fly safely and deliver a package in time (and intact).  Thanks to her delivery service and her sweet-heartedness, Kiki soon makes many new friends.  She meets a young, female artist who lives in the woods, searching for the inspiration for her next painting.  She meets an old-fashioned grandmother who, as all grandmothers do, loves to bake cakes and pies for other people.  And most amusingly, Kiki even meets a young admirer, Tombo, who finally wins her over in a series of amusing, meet-cute encounters.

In this, we see the key difference between a typical Miyazaki film and other animated films.  There are no good guy-bad guy confrontations in this film and essentially no real action, either.  Much of this film is instead devoted to scenes which build relationships and camaraderie.  Kiki's Delivery Service is truly a celebration of the gradual emergence of self-confidence as well as the importance of developing good friendships.  These may hardly seem usual themes around which to build a such a popular animated film, but Kiki's Delivery Service is always entertaining and never condescending, a fine tribute to Miyazaki's great skill as a story-teller.

Miyazaki understands that the essence of any good film, not just an animated one, lies in its ability to move us in an honest and real manner.  Once upon a time, animators at the Disney studios knew this, too; perhaps they are now re-learning it from Miyazaki.  In fact, one of Disney's recent efforts, Lilo 'n' Stitch, made a surprisingly good effort to emulate the spirit of a Miyazaki film, offering many tender and sweet moments between the film's two sisters (before Lilo 'n' Stitch eventually devolved into a typically Disney action-comedy with lasers and spaceships and fuzzy aliens). 

It is ironic that while the Disney company no longer routinely produces the best animated features around, it still distributes the finest in CGI animated films (from Pixar, a Disney subsidiary) and now in traditional cel-animation (from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli).  For a good introduction to Miyazaki's films, check out Kiki's Delivery Service, a wonderful childhood tale about growing up, but more importantly, about true friendship.

Video *** 1/2

Disney put a lot of care into the transfer for Kiki's Delivery Service, and the results are very pleasing indeed.  The film is shown in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 format.  Images are clear, and the colors are bright and chipper.  The colors do rarely fluctuate a little, but this is merely an attribute of the traditional cel animation of the film and not a quality of the transfer itself.  The animation itself is quite excellent, perhaps not quite up to the best Disney standards but certainly superior to most other anime films.  The level of detail is generally solid, with only a few scenes appearing mildly soft.  Best of all, the terrible compression defects which marred the trailers are absent here, so the movie looks quite good.

Audio ****

Kiki's Delivery Service originally had a Dolby stereo soundtrack, but it has been upgraded to 5.1 surround sound for this DVD.  Better yet, there are now three such available 5.1 tracks (in English, Spanish, and in the original Japanese).  The Japanese track is very charming, and the original voice actors do a great job.  The English track features the voices of Kirsten Dunst as Kiki and Phil Hartman as Jiji.  I should point out that in comparing the English and Japanese tracks, I noticed many alterations in the dialogue, which at times might be completely unrelated between the two tracks!  Consequently, the nature and tone of the film is considerably different in the English version (I cannot speak for the Spanish version), making Kiki's Delivery Service fundamentally a new experience when switching from the original Japanese track to the English one.  The English track may be a well-produced one, but purists might ultimately prefer the original track because it best preserves the natural inflection and humor of the Japanese dialogue in the film.

The music is also a delight.  From the Ye Ye pop tune that Kiki listens to while riding her broomstick, to the film's breezy, light-hearted theme, this score sets a wonderfully cheerful atmosphere for the film, painting a portrait of youth and innocence.  Unfortunately, the English dubbed version substitutes a couple of dull pop tunes for the superior Japanese ones that appear in the original opening and closing credits.  Given the muddy, visual appearance of these English sequences as well, I again recommend that viewers just watch the original Japanese version!

Features ** 1/2

Kiki's Delivery Service arrives as a double DVD set.  The first DVD starts off with an introduction by Pixar maestro John Lasseter.  It also has a new interactive experience called "The World of Ghibli" which takes you inside the lands and characters in the story as well as behind the studio for documentaries, interviews and more.

The second DVD contains only one feature, but it is a huge storyboard section that runs 102 minutes and covers the entire film from start to finish!  Wow.  Viewers have the option here of listening to either the Japanese or the English audio track with the storyboards.  This long feature fortunately have chapter stops, too, so viewers need not fast forward through long stretches to arrive at a particular scene of interest.


Absolutely adorable!  Only a total scrooge would not be completely charmed by this wonderful animated film.  If you're looking for a winsome family film with plenty of heart, look no further, because Kiki's Delivery Service is one of the best animated films available now on DVD and receives my top recommendation!

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