It's hard to tell a great story about good people, because goodness itself can seem like such a saccharine subject. What's there to be said about such folks other than, well, they're good and we should admire them? Part of the magic, pun intended, of Kiki's Delivery Service — easily the most effortlessly charming film Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have made — is how it presents us with just such a character and doesn't make all that's admirable about her seem like a chore or a lesson, but instead equal parts romp and adventure.
Kiki adapts, with some liberty, the first of Eiko Kadono's series of children's books about a teenaged witch's real-world adventures, the first of which has been published in English but in a disappointingly small and scarce printing. I suspect the original story was too episodic to adapt directly into a film; rather, Miyazaki used ideas from throughout the first book to assemble a new storyline, one that complements all of his favorite themes: the irrepressible energy of youth, the trials of human growth, the wonders of the natural world, the joy of flight. But most importantly, he remembered to make the whole thing great fun to watch.
Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world
The premise of the film remains the same as the book: Kiki, a witch in her early teens or so, has elected to leave the nest early and strike out on her own in a big city somewhere. It's a rite of passage every witch goes through, just like her mother did, and she's determined to follow proudly in the family tradition. At least Kiki's not making this journey entirely alone. Her black cat, Jiji, is accompanying her, and his sarcastic running commentary (yes, he talks, but only to her) makes a fun foil for her perpetual can-do attitude. But she's at a loss as to what she can actually do when she's in a world that finds witch's magic a curiosity at best, and when the range of her own powers is so limited. She can fly on a broom, and that's about it — that and she still has a little difficulty steering, and sometimes her takeoffs and landings are a bit bumpy.
The big city where Kiki chooses to make a name for herself proves to be an arena of indifference and frustration. The locals ignore her. The cops almost haul her in for causing a commotion, as she quickly discovers it's a bad idea to buzz crosstown traffic while riding a broom. The only reason she's not busted is because a local boy, Tombo, provides a handy distraction. Tombo, a goofy bird of a kid with a fascination for flying things, takes one glimpse of Kiki on her broom and is smitten with her. She haughtily doesn't return the favor, though — a behavior so far out of gamut from what we've seen of her that there has to be something else driving it. One possibility is she just plain doesn't know what to do with such attention.
Glum and dispirited with the minimal options available to her, Kiki lucks out when a bakery-shop owner discovers a customer left behind her baby's pacifier, since Kiki is able to ferry it to the woman in a fraction of the time it would take to chase after her on foot. The baker, Osono, a merry and stout-hearted sort, offers Kiki the use of her attic and a suggestion about a possible line of business: Why not run a delivery service? The sheer novelty of the idea kicks Kiki into higher gear: it's not that she minds helping out in the bakery (especially since Osono has a baby on the way), but anything she can do to put her powers to use ought to be a net boon.
Kiki's first official assignment turns into a non-stop comedy of errors. She doesn't even know how much to charge when a fashionable young woman asks Kiki to ferry a gift — a toy stuffed cat in a birdcage — to her son on the other side of town. A gust of wind knocks her into a tree; crows attack her thinking she's out to steal their eggs; the doll gets ruined and Jiji has to stand in for the real thing (and endure the loving attention of a very large dog) while Kiki hunts frantically for the original. But out of this mess, a few good things come — not least of which is an enduring friendship with another girl, Ursula. A bohemian sort with a cabin in the woods, Ursula embodies a quality Kiki has dormant within her: the will to be one's self, unapologetically and without any second-guessing about what the rest of the world thinks.
Kiki could use some of that confidence, because from the moment she arrives in the city she's besieged with opportunities to feel like she doesn't measure up, above and beyond discovering that witches seem to have little place in the modern world. (Witches in this story's universe appear to be like watch or typewriter repairmen: they're not so much alien or menacing as they are simply oddities.) Rather, it's the way little problems represent bigger failings for her. When fashionably dressed girls her age walk by, her black frock suddenly seems all the more dowdy and unappealing. She snubs an opportunity to hang out with Tombo and his rowdy friends — ostensibly because one of the girls in that group was rude to her before (all Kiki was trying to do was deliver her a pie from her grandmother), but maybe also because Kiki feels like she can't compete with that sort of company.
It's not as if she has to, though. Tombo idolizes her for what she is — he sends her notes addressed "To Miss Witch" — but it takes a little sleight of hand on Osono's part to get Kiki to drop her guard around him. Once she does, though, Kiki discovers he's only making her the center of his attention because of what she is, not because of what she could be. He's eager to include her in his goofy human-powered flight projects, one of which almost leaves both of them pancaked on a grassy hillside (although they are able to not only walk away from that mess, but even laugh about it). Kiki's not used to being welcomed into someone's heart without, in her eyes, having done anything to earn it. In the same way, she's astonished to discover Ursula's created a painting modeled after her: why would she, when she doesn't think she's all that pretty?
But other people can always see things in us that we can't, and it's that perspective Kiki is able to draw on to find herself when things are at their worst. And for her, things get very bleak indeed: she loses her power of flight; she's unable to communicate with Jiji (who's got his own crush on that gorgeous white Persian living next door); she questions what function she has in the world without being able to do any of those things. As it turns out, she still has a great deal — and channels them to get back into the saddle when disaster strikes.
I wish I was special; you're so very special
It's been said, although I'm hard-pressed to say who pointed it out first, that it's an order of magnitude harder to create something for children than it is for adults. This isn't because kids are dumb and need to have everything spelled out for them, but because it's harder to take the complexities of life that adults understand by dint of having been there, and compress them down to something that kids can access without feeling like they're being talked down to. Miyazaki's works, and the Ghibli productions generally, have always been skilled at this kind of distillation. I think that's part of why they work well as productions for all ages as they do "kid's movies", and they've been able to do it just as well with someone else's material as they have with their own. Such was the case with The Secret World of Arietty, Whisper of the Heart, or From Up on Poppy Hill, and it's certainly the case here.
Within those films and many others under the Ghibli/Miyazaki banner has been the theme of a youthful rite of passage, an initation into a wider world. In Kiki's case, the theme includes finding a way to make that leap on one's own terms, to strike a balance between one's own individuality and the larger demands of the real (read: adult) world, which are not always so gentle. The best way to do that, the movie argues, is to surround yourself with good and caring people whenever possible, and to think less about what sets you apart and more about what you share. (At no point do any of her friends tell her maybe she ought to give up on the witch stuff and do something else.)
Another point made, one I think is at least as important, is how Kiki begins the film feeling like being a witch is the only important thing about her, and by the end of the film has come to understand that's not the whole story of her self. It isn't powers that make a person special, it's outlook and attitude — how they see life, and how they tackle it. Tombo isn't ashamed to do nutty things like attach airplane propellers to bicycles, even if he's yet to get any of his creations to not self-destruct, and Ursula keeps on painting even on the days when she can't think of a single thing to paint. Likewise, it isn't being a witch by itself that makes Kiki special, but how she elects to express herself through what she has, by helping people out and building connections between them. Yes, even if delivering a pie from granny to granddaughter only gets a door shut in her face, and doesn't bring the two generations any closer together, it's the intention that counts, because out of enough such intentions great things do come. What Kiki has to learn, and she does only hesitantly, is that she has to be willing to accept such connections to her own heart as well.
Fairytale story; real-world setting
I'm fond of the way children's stories, especially European ones, often sport settings that are as much abstractions and distillations of the real world as the stories themselves are. Kiki's setting is a deliberate composite of many European locales Miyazaki and his staff were fond of — chiefly Stockholm and the Swedish island of Gotland — and the way it strikes a balance between the modern and the timeless (TVs vs. cable cars vs. clock towers) feels like something self-consciously adopted by the people who lived there. It's not the obvious creation of a production designer, like the patched-together Goldberg-opolis of Knights of Sidonia; it's a lived-in place. That, in turn, makes what happens to Kiki and her associates feel all the more grounded and credible.
What brings me back to a movie like this is not just the deeper meanings or the lovely look of it all, but the little touches. Kiki abounds with them: the way Jiji holds a spare lightbulb in his mouth while Kiki swaps in a fresh one on a lamp; the moment when Osono's reticent husband realizes he has an audience, and shows off by revolving breadpans on his fingers like he's spinning plates; the night when Kiki sleeps in a cattle car and gets woken up by one of the cows licking her foot; the street sweeper exclaiming "That's my broom she used!" to a gaping crowd. And then there are all those precisely observed moments of natural beauty — not just the big things like the way the city looks from the sky, but little things like how the morning sun emerges from behind the clouds and changes the lighting across the rooftops.
The film's biggest weakness is its ending. It's a mess involving Tombo and a downed airship, one where Kiki has to kick her powers back into gear in order to save the day. From a story-construction standpoint, it works, but the tone of the whole thing feels wrong — it's as if Miyazaki got uneasy not ending the film with a bang, and so he resorted to a big set-piece action climax. Maybe there could have been something like Tombo participating in a race with one of his wonky flying machines, and Kiki flying shotgun with him, helping out when his bike chain snaps. But there's no denying what we do get is thrilling; from a technical perspective, it's a marvel, as the Ghibli team find one opportunity after another for suspense or laughs (or sometimes both at once). And the way the film puts a bow on all that's happened — something that lasts through the end credits, so stick around — leaves us inclined to think: You know, I get the feeling that girl's going to do just fine. Actually, from what we see, she already has.
Note: Disney took the time and money to produce English dubs featuring name actors for all the Ghibli films they acquired. I am not terribly fond of the English dub they produced for Kiki, though -- it's solid and serviceable, even when it deviates from the original dialogue for the sake of convenience, but its biggest defect is it needs a little more zing and zip. Well, with one notable exception: Phil Hartman as Jiji is riotous, doubly so when he's improvising dialogue (best one: "Kiki? Bus!"). Kirsten Dunst's Kiki, though, sounds a little too snooty and petulant at times — the way she says "Boring!" when waiting for a call to come in, for instance, seems more like something that would come from a put-upon little princess, not a hapless young witch-in-training.