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The Media Man Reviews: Kiki's Delivery Service

Updated: Jan 26

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About time I finally reviewed a Studio Ghibli film for this blog, am I right?


Founded on June the 15th 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most renowned and beloved animation studios ever founded in the world of media. Every movie they make is seen as a masterpiece and a work of art that has to be seen and the studio's films have become iconic pieces of cinema in both the Western and Eastern world with the films being very popular in both their native Japan and also in the US and beyond. Any animation fan worth their salt can name at least one Studio Ghibli movie they absolutely love with Spirited Away frequently making Best Animated Films lists in particular.

I must sadly confess that I've had very, very, VERY little exposure to Studio Ghibli and its library. Even as a child, the only real exposure I've had to Studio Ghibli was my older brother once owning a copy of Spirited Away but even then, I didn't watch it. I've only really started becoming more aware of Studio Ghibli and their works thanks to watching AniMat's videos, particularly his Animation Lookback video essays on Studio Ghibli. I did eventually watch Spirited Away and while I find it a little overrated, it's easy to see why it's such an iconic piece of cinema. But we're not talking about that movie. We're instead talking about my second Studio Ghibli film I've watched so far. That movie...is Kiki's Delivery Service.


Based on the book by Eiko Kadono, Kiki's Delivery Service was released in 1989 with two English dubs being released in 1989 and 1997 respectively. The film stands as among the studio's most beloved features and if you see a list of the best Studio Ghibli films, Kiki's Delivery Service will most likely get mentioned. When it comes to this movie, I was made aware of its existence thanks to AniMat and the Nostalgia Critic's videos and I was able to watch it on Netflix for the first time last year. Prior, I've had no real exposure to the movie beforehand and it wasn't something I grew up with so sorry Ghibli fans, I have no nostalgic connection to this or any Ghibli films for the matter.


For this review, I am reviewing the 1997 Disney dub of the movie so my thoughts on the movie are based SQUARELY on that version. Also I'll be reviewing it as a standalone movie and NOT as an adaptation as I haven't read the book, but there will be a case where I will acknowledge the book when I cover one particular scene.


So does Kiki deliver us something special with this movie? Or should we send this package back to her? Let's fly on our brooms and find out.


Section 1: The Story


The story follows the life of Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch who leaves home to enter the big wide world and focus on honing her magical abilities. She visits a port city called Koriko and sets up a delivery service where she gets to use her unique skills as a witch to delivery packages and presents to the people of the city. But as life starts to get tough for Kiki, she soon sees that not even the powers of a witch may be enough to help her through her struggles...


On paper, the story sounds incredibly simple and might even seem rather uninteresting at first. I mean it's just the life of a teenage girl. There's no grand plot behind the movie and there's no antagonist to defeat so this must be a boring movie, right?


WRONG!!!


It's a common occurrence in Studio Ghibli films that they take very simple stories where it's just about someone's life and make them very engaging and surprisingly mature and even adult compared to most animated films and Kiki's Delivery Service is no exception. The story manages to be surprisingly enjoyably despite its simple premise in where there's no real stakes to what's going on until the end of the movie and all we're doing is just seeing Kiki live her life and trying to adjust to her new status quo as she lives in Koriko. It gives the movie a very laid-back nature that makes for easy viewing and with the very heart-warming tone that the film has, it makes for a very pleasant watch as well. I guarantee that this is one of those films where you'll feel good while watching it and if a movie makes you feel like that, it's a good watch.


But the film does have a deeper side to its story and it comes in the form of some really clever metaphors, namely how Kiki loses her abilities and it's discussed as being some form of artist's block. As a writer who's been trying to write a book for YEARS and not getting anywhere and even suffering writer's block to the point even my fanfics weren't going anywhere, I found this insanely relatable and I became even more engaged with Kik's struggle as a result. How can you not feel sorry for this girl and not feel for her situation since we've all been through that kind of situation before where we just hit a burnout and lose the passion we once had for our work whether it's a job or our personal passion projects. The movie as a result can be viewed as a giant metaphor for growing up and how change can be a struggle for those that go through it. Kiki goes on this big adventure with the wide-eyed idealism of an innocent kid with a very innocent view on the world and yet reality hits her like a tonne of bricks and she sees it's not so glamorous in the end. It's something we've all been through in our lives and only makes the story and Kiki herself even more relatable to the audience as a result.


The movie's heart-warming tone is also amplified by the positive messages it has and encourages its audience to follow, namely that it's good to be kind to others and that it's good to take a break every now and again if you're in a rut. Throughout the movie, Kiki's kind and helpful nature positively impacts the people she visits and she ends up rewarded in full as a result, which can teach anyone watching that kindness is a good trait to have and how one act of kindness inspires another, like how Ursula helps Kiki with her problems with her powers or how Madame repays Kiki for helping her finish baking her pie for her granddaughter. It's all so very uplifting and it just makes for such a sweet movie and...gah, I'm gushing just thinking about it, this film's so damn sweet! :D


And you know how I mentioned there's no villain in this movie? I use that as a compliment and not a criticism because this movie didn't need an antagonist of any kind. Kiki's struggles with adjusting to city life and running her delivery service is all the conflict the movie needs and if they'd thrown in some kind of forced villain or something, it would've hurt the story. Even characters that could've been potential antagonists like any of Kiki's customers or Tombo's friends aren't written that way and are just depicted as ordinary people she meets and interacts with. As is, the movie does have a surprising climax at the end in the form of a windy storm that puts Tombo's life in danger and Kiki has to rescue him so the film does get pretty intense and exciting when that happens, and it only feels more impactful because the film was just so low-stakes and easy-going at the time that we didn't expect it.


I remember the Nostalgia Critic calling the climax "kinda forced" in his Disneycember review of the movie and that's because that guy has no idea how story-telling works despite claiming to be a "critic". The climax wasn't forced in the slightest and was actually very cleverly built-up throughout the movie. Notice how so many scenes have Kiki listening to the radio for weather reports and how there's such a big deal made about the dirigible that Tombo wants to see and even got to fly on before the climax happens? It's all subtle foreshadowing for what was about to happen at the end and needless to say, it pays off brilliantly. Nothing "forced" about this climax whatsoever.


What DOES feel kinda forced to me is the tension between Kiki and Tombo though. I dunno if anyone else will agree or not, but I really didn't get Kiki's problem with him. When they first meet, Tombo doesn't really do anything wrong and it's even HIM who saves her from the cop and yet she's just cold and aloof to him, contradicting heavily how she interacts with everyone else in the movie. It just makes Kiki look like a jerk for not giving him the time of day, though Tombo not getting the hint that she's not interested in him doesn't help his case either. My friend The Wandering Fox has read the original book and he tells me that their first meeting goes differently than in the movie: He describes as follows:


"Kiki and Tombo meet much differently in the book. Kiki goes to the beach and tries saving a boy from the water but her broom has gone missing, so she has to make do with the one Tombo left. She saves the boy and then finds Tombo wearing a black dress and is trying to figure out how her broom flies. Kiki does laugh at him for wearing a dress and then points out the broom she just flew on herked and jerked so much her bottom hurts. Tombo broke her broomstick and was sorry. She does forgive him and it’s later revealed in several chapters Tombo thinks she has pretty eyes."


I would eventually read the book and see for myself how it went. Why the movie left this out, I don't know. It would've made Kiki's aloof behaviour towards Tombo more understandable instead of feeling as forced as it did here.


And this isn't necessarily a criticism but more like it'll depend on who's watching the movie. Due to its low-stakes plot, adult metaphors and how the story-telling is more sophisticated than most animated films, I can imagine kids might be bored by this and that this is a movie adults will get into more. I'm not saying I wouldn't recommend it to kids, it's just that I can't imagine them getting into it as much as we adults can. This is definitely one of those animated films where it feels more for adults than children even if it's still told in a family-friendly way.


As is, Kiki's Delivery Service is one of the best examples on how a simple story can go a long way. The execution made this story seem even bigger than it actually is and with its clever metaphors, mature and relatable subject matter and heart-warming tone, it makes for an interesting and wholesome viewing experience that I won't be forgetting anytime soon. If this is just one of many great stories Studio Ghibli has told, then I really should check out the rest of their library!


Section 2: The Characters


These are some of the most charming characters ever written for an animated movie and I'm not exaggerating.


Let's start off with the titular witch herself, Kiki (voiced by Kirsten Dunst). Kiki is an absolute bundle of preciousness and it's all thanks to her sweet and kind personality where she provides help towards anyone and everyone she meets no matter who they are. Young or old, child or adult, Kiki will carry out tasks for everyone and it's rather inspiring to see her being such a helpful person to everyone and in return, those people end up repaying her in some way. I always like the kind of characters where their niceness ends up largely impacting everyone around them and Kiki's a great example of that. She's also a very relatable protagonist for all the reasons I covered in the story section. Leaving her quiet home life and moving into a big city setting, Kiki struggles to adjust to the changes and eventually it leads to her losing her ability to fly, which is a big blow to her as a witch. It gives her a very real and human struggle she has to overcome in the movie and it only makes her feel more believable as a result. If I ever make a list of my all-time favourite female characters in media, Kiki more than belongs on that list. She's absolutely precious and I love her for it.


She's accompanied by her feline sidekick, Jiji (voiced by the late Phil Hartman). This cat as sassy as hell and I love it. He gets the funniest quips in the movie, largely thanks to Phil Hartman's sardonic delivery and improv skills, and he gives me a good laugh every time I watch him. He does prove to be helpful at times like whenever he gives Kiki advice and acts as the voice of reason to her and even helped her stall a customer by pretending to be the new cat toy he asked for while she retrieved the original one. He's also used as a metaphor for Kiki growing up later on in the movie for she's no longer able to understand him and he just meows instead of speaking English. The Disney dub does make it seem as if he gains back his ability to speak but I believe that's a Disney dub thing. He was never meant to speak again for the rest of the movie. Still, this cat was great when he was able to talk and his style of humour made him fun to watch.


And then we have the people Kiki meets over the course of her adventures. There's a young boy named Tombo (voiced by Matthew Lawrence), a kindly baker named Osono (voiced by Tress MacNeille), an isolated artist named Ursula (voiced by Janene Garofalo) and Madame (voiced by the late Debbie Reynolds). Osono, Ursula and Madame are all lovely people who give Kiki the best time with what nice people they are, and Ursula especially proves helpful in helping Kiki deal with her troubles by using the artist block metaphor and suggesting she just take a break. Osono deserves a mention too for being a sweet motherly figure to Kiki and providing her a place to call home whilst living in the city. She was absolutely the right person for Kiki to meet after arriving in Koriko and she certainly benefitted from living with her.


And then there's Tombo. I have mixed feelings on the guy. On the one hand, he comes off as an annoying stalker who can't get the hint that Kiki's not interested in him but on the other hand, he clearly isn't a bad guy and is just fascinated by her being a witch. I like how he wants to make friends with Kiki and is just trying to be sociable with her but sometimes, you need to accept that people just aren't interested, and you shouldn't try pestering them like so. As is, I still feel Kiki's behaviour towards him was uncalled for because again, he didn't really do anything wrong aside showing interest in her being a witch. Could he have got that across differently? Perhaps, but I still think Kiki was unfair to him and really didn't need to treat him that way. At least she saves his life in the climax though, that was great of her, and it showed that even if she and Tombo have a rocky relationship, she'll still save him if he's in a death-defying situation.


The characters are just like the plot of the movie: simple yet they leave a big impact on you. With their likeable personalities and fun character traits, I guarantee this is a cast you'll have a good time with too...


Section 3: The Animation


Talking about Studio Ghibli animation is like talking about Pixar animation: no matter what movie I review, I'll be saying the same thing over and over, and that is that the animation is GORGEOUS.


I've always been a big fan of Japanese animation due to how appealing and creative the art-styles and character designs can be and when you give anime a movie-sized budget like with Studio Ghibli, you do get something truly breathtaking to watch. Kiki's Delivery Service is an utter treat for the eyes thanks to its appealing art style and lavishly detailed scenery, something that as far as I can see carries over to all other movies in their library.


Let's start with the art style and character designs. The art style is very much old-school Japanese animation, which makes sense because this film came out in the 80's. The humans have a more simplified and stylized look to them while still looking very anatomically accurate so they still look like humans but they also look more appealing thanks to the cartoony designs. I'm not a big fan of the fact nearly everybody in the movie has the same black eyes with white dots in them. Madame's the sole exception from what I can remember. I would've liked it if everybody had different eye colours to make them more distinct but hey, I guess it made them easier to animate so I won't fault them for that. The characters do look distinct enough without eye colours at least. All the humans are easy to tell apart thanks to their different body shapes, style of dress and trademark features whether it's Kiki's billowing black dress and large red bow, Tombo's quirky dress sense and large glasses, Ursula's loose and outdoors style of dress and more. The animators made sure not to make anybody look too samey and that only makes the characters more memorable and easy to remember as a result.


And then you get the animals where Jiji is given a more cartoonish design with his overly large eyes, expressive face and lanky body but other animals we see such as the dog or the flock of geese or the murder of crows or even the cows in the train Kiki sleeps in look more realistic and are even drawn with realistic eyes. It helps to make the world look and feel more real and to make it clear this isn't a fantasy world but at the same time, it just makes them stand out a lot from the more cartoonish looking humans and Jiji. I'm not saying that as a bad thing, I'm just saying it might look weird to some that we have these realistic looking animals and yet Jiji isn't depicted that way and the humans don't look as realistic.


But I can see why they did it of course, and that brings us to the character animation. Because of the simpler designs on the humans and Jiji, they're able to be more expressive with their emotions and body movements that a hyper-realistic art style wouldn't allow for and because the animals are drawn more realistically, they don't have to make them as "animated" so to speak so the realistic art style suits them better. The character animation is very well done with the character's personalities really shining through because of how they're animated and it's always easy to tell how the characters are feeling in a scene because of how expressive they are. Even during the film's more quiet and subtle scenes you can still read the expressions easily. The scene where Kiki comes back to the bakery and asks about the new sign advertising her delivery service and thanks Osono's husband for the gesture is even done entirely with no dialogue and just from watching Kiki's reactions through the shop window, we know exactly what's going on and what she's saying with just the animation telling us. Animation that can tell the story by itself is good animation I say.


I of course must talk about the highlight of the movie's visuals, and that is without a doubt the flying scenes. Everyone on planet Earth who has seen this movie has seen and loved the flying scenes and they're some of the best flying scenes ever animated in a movie. The breathtaking views of the world below, the flow of the movements, the choreography and the detail put into them is just a delight to watch and you often get the impression that Hayao Miyazaki and his team included these scenes just to show off how pretty the animation can look. I especially love how they go to the lengths to always animate Kiki's clothes and hair blowing in the wind when she rides through the sky making her deliveries. If any movie could make flying on a broom like a classic witch does look so beautiful and awe-inspiring, it was this movie.


I also though the climax was great too with how intense it felt with the dirigible being blown away at a dangerous angle and crashing into the clocktower and destroying whatever's in its way. It really does feel like anyone could die in this scene and that it's a proper life-or-death situation with Tombo hanging on for dear life as Kiki tries to reach him. The fact it's the only real action scene the movie has only makes it stand out more and feel more tense when it happens.


And then there's the amount of detail that went into the movie. EVERYTHING is practically bursting with detail from the backgrounds to the vehicles on the road, the planes flying in the sky, the dirigible, the food the characters eat or cook and much more and it all looks so good and meticulously detailed that you have to wonder how long it took just to draw a single frame of this movie. Even in the movie's opening with Kiki lying in the field listening to her radio, the animators took it upon themselves to animate nearly every single blade of grass and flowers just blowing in the wind. I'm aware that they shortened Kiki's hair to make it easier to animate when she's flying and yet they still went out of their way to be as detailed as this. They even made the city of Koriko look beautiful too with its cosy, nostalgic, European style architecture and when you consider they took inspiration from cities such as Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris and San Francisco, it's no wonder it looks so pretty and like a lovely place to live. It's truly amazing how everything was done by hand here and they can give us realistic looking vehicles, food, scenery and so much more just with pencil and paper. This is why I hate that so many animated properties are done in CG nowadays because it really is way more impressive watching something like this than watching ANY movie animated on a computer. Sure CG looks impressive but stuff like this is just more incredible when you consider this was what people could create just by animating on paper.


Oh and does anyone other than me love that Kiki nearly gets hit by a bus that says "Studio Ghibli" on the side of it? That's a funny little Easter Egg. XD


This movie serves as an example as to why I love Japanese animation so much. Its gorgeously detailed, very expressive, lushly coloured and breathtaking to watch and this is what happens when you get Japanese animation on a bigger budget than what you'd see in an average anime series. This and Spirited Away have given me a great example of what Studi Ghibli can do with its animation and I bet the rest of their films will do the same should I finally watch more...


Overall


Do I need to say anything more? This movie is one of the most wholesome and beautiful viewing experiences I've ever had as a movie-goer and a media enthusiast. The story is simple yet effective, the themes are strong, timely and relatable, the characters are full of charm, the voice-acting in the English dub is strong and the animation is insanely gorgeous. I only watched it for the first time last year yet it's VERY quickly climbed up to become one of my Top 10 Favourite Movies of all time, not just in terms of animation. If you're a Studio Ghibli fan then chances are you've already watched this masterpiece so I don't need to recommend it to you. If you want to get into Studi Ghibli like I do, then watch this. It's a great first impression for any newcomer to the studio. Kiki delivered us a fantastic film and I'll happily be paying her for a great service...


And that's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I invite you all to share your thoughts down below. Do you like Kiki's Delivery Service? Are you a Studi Ghibli fan or a newcomer? Comment away and let me know.


Join me again on Sunday as I'll be reviewing The Lion King II: Simba's Pride in honour of the blog's second anniversary. See you then media fans!

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