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"Kiki’s Delivery Service": It Must Be Witchcraft

by on March 2, 2010

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a beautifully crafted and utterly charming story, brimming with vibrant details and warm, sympathetic characters. It caresses the spirit like a warm, Saturday-afternoon-in-the-summertime breeze. It is modest and humane and delights at every turn. It is surely one the best, and brightest, and justifiably beloved films of the last twenty-five years. Words cannot—

Words cannot …


No, I’m sorry. I have to stop right there. I can’t go on in this bright, shiny, happy and utterly false way.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is Miyazaki, which means it’s better than 95% of everything else that’s out there. But—and most readers will feel it as a slap when I say this—it is mediocre Miyazaki. It’s Miyazaki splashing around in the shallows. If Totoro was his great breakthrough, that still makes Kiki his sophomore slump. He is better than this, and we don’t do him any kindness by pretending otherwise. Kiki has its charms, and it deserves the affection it receives, but it doesn’t even rise to the level of “flawed masterpiece.” It should be accepted and loved for what it is, which is a very small movie that is very good at making a good impression but not very good at anything else.

Kiki‘s basic problem (as a story; as a visual feast it is uniformly excellent) is that it is all premise and no development, all idea and no execution. The title character is a thirteen-year-old witch who, per custom, strikes out to live on her own for a year in a new town in order to further hone her craft. Kiki launches with this very good idea, and then stops dead for the rest of its running time. Kiki opens a delivery service and rents a room from a baker and his wife, and she meets a boy, and she makes some deliveries. And then, after an hour of noodling aimlessly around in this way, the movie seemingly goes into a panic and throws together a hackneyed accident and rescue, mostly (it feels) for lack of any other notion of how to wrap itself up.

Now, I am not the sort of viewer who demands constant action and drama; one of my favorite movies is the Scottish-Texan comedy Local Hero, whose action high point occurs fifteen minutes in when the main characters accidentally run over a rabbit. But in a character study—which is basically what Kiki is—each scene and each sequence must add a line or a squiggle or a stroke or a shade to a character. If it doesn’t, then it results not in a portrait but only a sketch, and usually a clichéd sketch at that. In Kiki you often learn only one additional thing about each major character after they show up—Kiki is insecure around her peers; Tombo loves to tinker with flying machines—and then it’s more or less the same thing over and over again. An alert viewer can grasp Kiki herself within the first ten minutes, and nothing she says or does after that adds even a jot to what we implicitly already know about her. Even when the characters are as attractive as those in Kiki, they begin to get very boring very quickly.

It’s also a good idea, in a story such as this, to let the characters bump and spark off each other with at least a little conflict. It keeps everyone from falling asleep quite so fast, and it can reveal more interesting things about them. Kiki has a little bit of that, and in the title character you can glimpse those future Miyazaki heroines who stand uneasily at something like a thirty-five-degree tilt against the rest of the world. But Kiki herself never really tries to do anything about this ill fit; and the story is so protective of her that it never forces her to confront and come to terms with her own eccentric stance. Instead, there’s a lot of cooing and patting of her head. Indeed, if you are even a little bit allergic toward thirteen-year-old girls, Kiki might set of a reaction because it is just so gosh-darn fond of her.

Compare this with any of Miyazaki’s other movies, especially those that came after Kiki, and which (I would tentatively suggest) excelled because Miyazaki saw how to incorporate the invention from his Lupin past into the deep, philosophical interests of his post-Totoro phase. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Porco Rosso can’t go more than ten minutes without throwing a curve ball—some crazy, unexpected development that forces its characters to reveal new and fascinating facets of themselves. The corkscrew revelations about Yubaba (the witch) in Spirited Away are a good example. Just when you think you have her pegged—as a wicked witch; as a tyrannical, ungracious taskmaster; as the dominating spirit of her world—something happens that shows her off in a new and unexpected light: as the doting mother of a spoilt child; as a boss who isn’t shy about hugging and praising her employees; as the more pitiable sister in a twin-sibling relationship. Similar twists occur with almost all the other major characters in that film as well as in the others. But there are no similar moments in Kiki.

Nor does it have any of those other films’ sometimes spooky sense of the uncanny. Everyone in Kiki’s world graciously accepts the existence of broomstick-riding witches, the way they accept the existence of pharmacists and train conductors. It’s nice that Kiki forgoes the obvious temptation to cook up conflict by introducing antagonists who cast suspicious glances in Kiki’s direction. But this very kindness means the film also forgoes the sense of unpredictability that even the benign magic of Totoro suggests—let alone the terrifying displacements in Spirited Away, Howl, and Porco Rosso. You can’t open a door or put on a coat in those movies without risk of stepping into a new kind of Wonderland. But the world of Kiki is utterly bourgeois. That’s a nice change from the more typical, anti-bourgeois stories we often get, but only in the way that a really good bowl of oatmeal can be a nice change from bad Chinese food.

Kiki and her witchery are also, at best, only occasional metaphors, and I’d emphasize the word “occasional” in that observation. Why does this story need Kiki to be a witch? What does it add, except the excuse for a talking cat and some flying sequences? Kiki could just as easily have been the story of a girl who (for intra-cultural reasons specifically posited for the plot) moves to a large city and takes to running errands. At only two points is it necessary that she have magical powers. The first is so that their disappearance at one point can be used as a metaphor for “artist’s block.” (That’s a disquieting thing to see show up in a movie that I’ve criticized for a paucity of invention.) The second is at the climax, when she has to rescue Tombo. Both incidents appear out of thin air, and connect to and comment on virtually nothing else in the movie. They feel tacked on only so that there’s a reason for Kiki to have magical powers.

None of this means that Kiki fails moment by moment; more often, it excels at each moment. But it’s an excellence that sags too often into self-indulgence. The sequence in which Kiki helps a little old lady bake her pumpkin-and-herring pie is as warm and as cozy as the woman’s kitchen, but it is also interminable, and it goes nowhere and arrives nowhere. (Yes, that sequence has a sting in its tail, but that only turns it into a kind of joke: a woefully long set-up to a very tart punch-line.) That whole bit is Kiki writ small: some very charming, low-key entertainment, with characters we feel great fondness for, leading up to a “Waitaminnit, is that it?” conclusion.

Disney has now re-released Kiki to DVD. I do not, actually, contradict myself when I say this: If you have not already seen Kiki, you should. If you have never seen a Miyazaki movie, you should make this one your first, because it will nicely prepare you for the rest, and because it really does make a very good impression.

I also urge you to watch it in the original Japanese with English subtitles, because the Japanese actors sound much more tart and interesting than the very gooey artists Disney hired. (The exceptions are the very contemporary-American Janeane Garofalo and Phil Hartman; I like these performers, but in this movie they are instantly recognizable and pitch you completely out of the magic.) A movie as sweet as this one needs all the lemon it can get.

This new release comes with a complete storyboard (set to the vocal/soundtrack) for the movie, and number of micro-featurettes, including a thirty-minute tour of locations in Sweden that inspired the look and design of Kiki’s city. These featurettes (whose total running time is probably about an hour or a little more) are the only content additions that really distinguish this 2010 release from the 2003 DVD. The menus on this latest DVD are also not animated, which makes them significantly less annoying to navigate. Whether better menu design and additional material are worth the purchase price will determine whether you will want to replace your old copy of Kiki with this new one.

Most filmmakers would kill to make a movie half as good as Kiki, so don’t let what I’ve said put you off it. There’s an old classical music joke, often credited to Mark Twain: Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. The reverse is true with Kiki’s Delivery Service: It’s not nearly as good as it seems. But it seems very good, and it is hard to walk away from it without feeling very kindly toward it. It’s all very mysterious—perhaps the one real note of witchcraft about this film—and maybe that’s excuse enough.’

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