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Categories: Movie Reviews

Cameron Johnson explains why he thinks Kiki’s flies heads and shoulders above the rest.

We’ve heard the story before. There’s a young witch named Kiki. She has a black cat, Jiji (basically the same character as Salem in Sabrina the Teenage Witch; even the voice actor in the American dub sounds similar) and a broom.

She’s learning magic so she can be a great witch like those that came before her. We’ve never heard it this good. Not even so, I may argue, in Harry Potter.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) was the fifth feature film of the acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, based off of the popular 1985 children’s novel by Eiko Kadono, and is one of his very best.

Though based on other material, Kiki’s has enough imagination and heart to merit comparison from some of Miyazaki’s very best, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Roger Ebert once said of Totoro, “here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy.”

Kiki’s advertises the same world. Leaving her parents at the age of 13 to explore the world and gain witching skills, Kiki discovers the town of Koriko, where she shocks a few people but also piques the interest of a young boy named Tombo with her flying skills and impresses a kindly pregnant bakery owner named Osono when she returns a pacifier to a baby thousands of yards away in seconds.

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Osono is quick to offer the plucky young Kiki a job as a delivery girl, and she starts a little company bringing baked goods and more across the city. Besides a subplot involving her relationship with Tombo, that’s basically the whole story, and it’s all the film needs.

Kikis is different because, unlike so many movies, it doesn’t choose to focus on heroes and villains and good and bad, but simply on living and dreaming and enjoying. Not everyone in the film is lovable; many kids Kiki meets on her trip are unkind to her but no one is evil and the characters Kiki comes to love have huge hearts. And, for once, it’s the adults that are the nice ones.

As we watch Kiki settle into the outside world we are taken on her wonderful journey of liberation, friendship and independence.

Miyazaki claims he wanted to use the film to show the necessity of a relationship between freedom and dependence, and did it perfectly here with a lovable assortment of friendly characters who provide insight and challenges for Kiki.

Many scenes embody Kiki’s learning experience and the film’s joy, but there are two I’d like to single out. These are two of the best scenes Miyazaki has ever done:

The first involves a delivery Kiki makes to a young boy – a toy cat for his birthday – in which she loses the toy in the woods and has to give him Jiji as a temporary replacement until she finds the original. She meets a friendly artist in the woods who returns her toy and makes friends with her. When she returns to save Jiji, she finds he has made friends with the boy’s dog and the rescue is far easier than most animated films would make it out to be. Dog’s don’t always have to hate cats.

And the second and best scene of all involves Kiki visiting an old lady so she can pick up a pie to deliver to her granddaughter. The pie will not be finished on time, so the lady decides to pay Kiki and let her on her way. Kiki refuses, saying she must do something to help. She cleans the old lady’s house, and helps her finish the pie on time.

Before watching this movie, I probably would have just taken the money and gone on my way. Miyazaki changed me.

The movie does conclude with a rather generic action sequence involving Tombo, but it’s a fitting climax that refers back to all the characters Kiki has made friends with along the way. By the end she’s grown into a brave, kind, and popular young lady and has learned a whole lot of lessons about life, and how important it is to treat people with kindness and respect, no matter how different they are or mean they are to you.

A different filmmaker may have taken a different direction, especially a Western one, but Miyazaki’s take is, for me, the perfect one. He made Kiki’s Delivery Service into a beautiful coming-of-age adventure that embodies everything wonderful and important about growing up. Kiki’s is one of Miyazaki’s best films and one of the greatest animated movies of all time.

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