The difference between Kiki's Delivery Service, one of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's earlier gentle fables, and the likes of the Harry Potter series is that the latter attempts to elevate ordinary, humdrum characters by placing them within a fantastical context, while the story elements that ought to be the skeletal structure of the boy wizard's tutelage are instead the vestigial organs, and magic spells and transmogrification come off as self-consciously otherworldly. On the other hand, Kiki presents a world of fantasy in such a genteel, unforced manner that it only seems ordinary and mundane. As such, it feels like a touchstone for all of Miyazaki's later, even greater works of cartoon storytelling art.
Kiki has just turned 13, the age at which all witches must leave their families for a year, make a new (presumably temporary) home for themselves, and hone their craft. She takes off on her mother's broom with her closest confidante, her black cat Jiji. The two eventually land upon an unspecified but vaguely Mediterranean seaside minitropolis. With the sort of luck that suggests the inevitable, Kiki finds room and board above a bakery, and her wobbly but unique skills flying around on a broom make her a natural choice to operate a delivery service from out of the bread shop. All the while, she gradually opens up to the friendly overtures made by a goofy, four-eyed, aviation-nutty boy.
Those accustomed to kid movie narratives focusing on a certain set of tasks, personal accomplishments, and the obligatory vanquishing of an authoritative foe might make it about halfway through Kiki before wondering whether the story will ever kick in, whether she'll spend the entire running time, well, running errands. In hindsight, Miyazaki admittedly hadn't yet honed his gift for plots that don't insist upon themselves but merely unravel with the free-associative logic of a tale told by children. The gloriously homey non sequiturs and placid character abstractions are nowhere near as in abundance as they would be in Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. (The movie's vague inertia may have a little bit to do with the fact that Miyazaki wasn't actually slated to direct the film originally, but ended up taking it on after the original director fell through.) Still, Kiki's Delivery Service is, along with the equally becalmed My Neighbor Totoro, the adagio between Miyazaki's more operatically mundane masterpieces.
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It's nice to have the option to switch between the English dub and the original Japanese soundtrack. While I've never considered it as much of a detriment to experience animated films in your native tongue as it would be for live-action films, there are certainly enough purists out there who would disagree vehemently. More power to them and more power to Disney for including the options (as well as French and Spanish). The picture is predominately gorgeous, though I did catch a few instances of blocking, most apparent in the credits sequences.
Not quite enough bonus material to merit a two-disc release, if you ask me, but nearly all of the features are smartly presented. On the first disc is an effusive introduction by Disney's John Lasseter. On the second disc is a full-length presentation of the original storyboards, synced up to the movie's soundtrack. There's an interactive tour of the worlds of Miyazaki for the kids, but there's not exactly much incentive to keep clicking various characters and objects. Half the time, they just pull up glorified preview clips for the other DVDs in Disney's Studio Ghibli line. Far more rewarding is a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, some newly produced, others culled from existing documentaries on the art of Miyazaki. Among the man's many winning observations is the fact that Kiki was actually his first big hit in Japan.
In a career full of quiet, unassuming animated yarns, Kiki's Delivery Service may be one of the quietest.