• Director: Hayao Miyazaki
  • Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, based on the novel by Eiko Kadono
  • Starring: Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Keiko Toda, Kappei Yamaguchi, Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Tress MacNeile, Matthew Lawrence, and Janeane Garofalo
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Not all of Studio Ghibli’s animated features over the years have been for kids, but those that are tend to be, if anything, more for kids than their American counterparts. Which is to say, Pixar or Dreamworks will bend over backwards to keep the attention of both kids and their parents, for better or worse. Many of Studio Ghibli’s movies have this gentleness that seems completely lacking in their American counterparts. They’re not grabbing kids’ attention, they’re operating on their level to begin with. At least, that’s the idea. I don’t want to say there’s no stakes, because sometimes there are, it’s just that the movie’s attitude towards those stakes is different than it would be in America. Kids in these movies are not adults, or played by adults doing kid voices. They are kids, is what I’m saying.

The world of Kiki’s Delivery Service is enjoyably not particularly explained, as if a kid made it up on the fly. There are witches that fly around on broomsticks, which people see on the level more of “oh, that’s kind of cool” than as being particularly weird. There are also these sort of semi-modern Mediterranean-ish cities with airplanes and dirigibles. Kiki (Minami Takayama/Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who has to leave home for her “witch training” (that’s about the extent of the explanation we get), with only her talking cat friend Jiji (Rei Sakuma/Phil Hartman) for company. She is taken in by a kindly pregnant woman (Keiko Toda/Tress MacNeille) who runs a bakery, starts her own “witch delivery business,” meets some nice people and some thoughtless people, and is approached by a vaguely cute boy (Kappei Yamaguchi/Matthew Lawrence), who she has no idea what to do with. She has her travails along the way but in the end is pretty much fine.

The movie represents relatively early work of the great Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, before he had really become known in the United States. As such, it was several years before Disney put together a US re-dubbing and release featuring an English-speaking cast. This dub, which is what you’ll now find available on HBO Max, debuted at the Seattle Film Festival in 1998. It features the final voice-acting performance of the great Phil Hartman, who died that same year. 

If you ask Miyazaki, the basic point of the story is to talk about independence among young people, particularly girls. Kiki’s parents and friends are nice and encourage her independence, but that doesn’t mean that growing up isn’t hard. At the crisis point in the movie, Kiki loses her magic and her ability to fly, and her cat friend stops talking to her and just acts like a regular cat. This is a fairly clear metaphor for her losing her self-confidence when she finds out that things aren’t quite as she imagined. By the end, the cat still isn’t talking to her, but now it’s because she’s grown up. Did she just grow beyond being able to hear Jiji, or was it always in Kiki’s imagination? There is no big reveal about this.

As with many Miyazaki movies, Kiki’s Delivery Service absolutely excels in the visual department. The scenery that goes by below Kiki’s broom as she flies is lovingly realized, and the city scenes are beautifully detailed. At the same time, the Japanese-style animation of the people easily shows a wide variety of subtle emotions. There are plenty of jokes, but they’re never really at anyone’s expense. The worst anyone is in this movie is just kind of thoughtless. Nobody wants Kiki to feel bad or is mean to her. A policeman yells at her at one point, but I mean, she did almost cause a bus crash. The movie knows the policeman is basically right. 

This was the highest grossing movie in Japan in 1989. There isn’t a huge amount about the story that’s Japanese (it specifically doesn’t look like it’s set in Japan, for one thing), but it never really made a huge impact in the US market, perhaps because, as I said, it doesn’t really feel like an American kids movie. And those connoisseurs who were prone to buy Studio Ghibli movies on DVD probably would be more likely to buy 4 or 5 other titles than this one, such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, so it probably wasn’t seen by as many people in this country.

But now every Studio Ghibli movie is available with the cost of a subscription to HBO Max. Christopher Nolan has called HBO Max “the worst streaming service” as part of his ongoing fight with Warner Bros., and maybe it is by some criteria, but it is by far the best of the major streaming services when it comes to watching classic movies. If you have a subscription, whether you have kids or are just looking to actually relax while watching a movie, I can definitely recommend Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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