Take a Drink: whenever Jiji actually meows.
Take a Drink: for each time Kiki gets a new delivery.
Take a Drink: for each use of the word ‘dirigible.’
Do a Shot: whenever Osono’s husband says anything intelligible.
Finish Your Drink: when Kiki and Tombo nail their landing.
By: Sarah Shachat (Two Beers) –
We’re so used to magical boarding schools and multi-tiered occult orders, it’s kind of refreshing to see a kid with powers just go off into the world with nothing but a flying broomstick and a transistor radio. Kiki’s Delivery Service ain’t your normal fantasy coming-of-age story. It resists The Hero’s Journey in its conventional form. The narrative stakes impact the characters more than the structural integrity of any major world landmarks. What the movie has to offer – in place of prophecy, destiny, and mortal combat – are beautiful scenery, interesting people, and sassy cat humor.
Hayao Miyazaki, working with the same sort of idealistic heroines, quirky supporting casts, animal familiars, and personal crises he brings to most of his other major films, here creates a world where magic and modernity co-exist in relative peace. Certain towns have witches, women with very particular sets of skills, and the story begins with our hero, Kiki, setting off to explore the world and find the magic power she can contribute to it. She eventually settles in a postcard-perfect seaside town and starts trying to make her mark. Building a brand is easier said than done, but Kiki befriends a lot of people who’ll back her corner, the audience included.
The true charm of Kiki’s Delivery Service is that the world never really seems dim. Sure, our protagonist encounters difficulties while she pursues her witch training – indifference, self-involvement, and, worst of all, self-doubt – but Kiki’s dauntless optimism, like all Ghibli heroines, allows her to keep moving forward and keep the gorgeous watercolor world in which she lives bright. That forward momentum holds the film up, too. What could just be a series of incidents, many involving the less-than-riveting stakes of package delivery, turn into a true adventure of self-discovery. There are three or four fine action setpieces, but Miyazaki is unafraid of spending a lot of downtime with Kiki’s plans and hopes and fears, the friends she makes, and her familiar Jiji’s Lothario-like pursuit of an aristocat next door.
The film relies on what I tend to think of as the Jaws principle. That one scene where the three guys on their not-big-enough boat drink beer and swap stories and enjoy an easy camaraderie: that’s the counterweight that actually lets the shark stuff be as emotionally affecting as it is visually shocking. That is the place where Spielberg takes all your feelings and puts them inside an oxygen tank for later. Miyazaki’s got a bright, shiny, steam-punk vault of his own. Yet what he invests in isn’t shocks and thrills as much as an appreciation of beauty and satisfaction in being compassionate. Kiki’s energy and enthusiasm put her in the way of people who will help her not only become a better witch, but a better person. They’ll help her keep moving once that energy and enthusiasm slackens off – and that crisis is physicalized and resolved in a really neat way.
It’s also amazing to think about the conscious, sometimes self-congratulatory, desire nowadays to structure films with Strong Female Characters; but, almost off-handedly, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a world where women are kind of in charge – of the kind of life they want to lead, of businesses and relationships, of successfully evacuating dirigibles – a full 25 years before most of the commentariat started evaluating that stuff. But it’s not, as the kids say, A Thing. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Kiki’s friend Tombo is as clever and driven and generous as anyone. The story isn’t particularly gendered. It is, instead, about as gentle as humane as a story with a bunch of cat-based slapstick can be.
Let’s leave alone the Pokemon problem of a thirteen year old set loose on the world without any guidance or oversight – because if that kind of stuff bothers you, this picture is a white rabbit you do not want to chase. But Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t quite as coherent as other Ghibli films, even though its animation and characters can stand up with anything in the studio’s catalog. But since the movie is a collage of incidents, some naturally play more strongly. Kiki’s friends and clients either only obliquely involve Kiki’s confidence/awareness of what it means to be a witch, or they are very obviously thematically related. Maybe some of that’s on the English dub’s script, but it’s there all the same. The story moves well despite its slight unevenness, but you definitely can feel the looseness of it in ways better constructed films won’t allow you to do.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is fun and funny, beautiful to look at, and tempting to get lost inside. The goodness and humor of these characters shine as brightly as light on the white stone of the town, or the water on the ocean. That is quite the magic trick.