It's almost as if Hayao Miyazaki wants to prove with Kiki's Delivery Service that he's able to take any concept, no matter how flowery, and make it into a thoughtful, earnest fable. The concept sounds like it could be dull and meandering, focusing on a young female witch named Kiki who sets off on a right of passage to live away from her family for a year to train. No magic takes place at Kiki's hand in our eyes, aside from soaring high in the air with her broom, and she instead establishes a "delivery service" with her one power. She's not sure what her magical specialty should be, or, for that matter, sure of very much of anything regarding her place in the mainstream world. A film about a witch where she's not doing anything witchy, just simply working and interacting with townsfolk.
So, why is Kiki's Delivery Service great? Well, because it's teeming with heart and splendid characters. From the second she arrives at a quaint seaside town, the place of her choosing and new base of operations, it's clear that the story's going to be one about the young girl struggling to fit into a bustling environment. With a broom, a radio, and a talking black cat named Jiji as her only possessions, she sets out to discover where she's going to live -- a portrait of many young individuals, though most that go through the same thing are usually older than her. As she descends on her broom into town, she's met with a cold, almost uninterested shoulder from the townspeople that nearly drives her away. Then, through the kindness of a local bakery owner with a room above her shop, she's given affirmation that she's where she belongs.
Things kind of fall into place like that in life, where the right answer, whether ideal or not, arrives at our feet when it seems like everything's falling apart. Kiki's Delivery Service draws a portrait of that transition point with both a child audience and adult-oriented viewers in mind, making her placement in the town easier than it probably should've been but charming enough to make it not matter. A simple gesture of kindness from Kiki during her most distressed moment, something as simple as returning a pacifier to a baby, results in her life changing for the better; it's that hopeful leap of faith in believing that happenstance, and, possibly, a dishing of karma, will return with kindness to those unabashedly helpful that gives Myazaki's film its heart.
A lot of Kiki's Delivery Service is spent traveling to and from locations across the beautiful Riviera-like town, introducing us to the characters across the map and simply immersing us into her world. Aside from the young boy, Tombo, who's infatuated with Kiki, we also see her interact with a snotty popular girl and her witch-friendly grandmother who endearingly makes her herring pies every year for her birthday. Through a chaotic delivery that pits Kiki against aggressive blackbirds, she also stumbles across an older, beautiful female artist, Ursula, who, like herself, relies on her unique talent to support herself. Though the path Miyazaki draws is beautiful as Kiki glides through the air, images stunning to our eyes both while navigating through cloudless skies and torrential rainfall, it's the destinations where she drops off packages -- and the people that affect her, lovingly constructed by Miyazaki -- that sustains its appeal.
It's hard not to care about Kiki, through her joyous laugh and appreciation for the little aesthetics in life, and the reward she receives for her unswerving compassion is poignant because of the affection built for the character. The road created for her, once she perfects her delivery service, isn't always uphill; at one point, her dwindling confidence causes her to have something like "writer's block" on her flying abilities. Kiki catches a glimpse at the disheartening nature of the human spirit and the wasted effort put into making others happy, and it weighs down her own confidence. She struggles with her witchcraft that way that many of us struggle with our own creative or everyday endeavors, stunted to inactivity until she finds her inspiration. A conversation with her kindred spirit, the artist, becomes the driving force in reinvigorating the young witch, a back and forth between two imaginative people that arrives at an obvious but levelheaded answer -- to persevere until the muse returns.
Kiki's Delivery Service roots itself in a realistic world that only contains a splash of the fanciful, being Kiki's mostly unused power as a witch, which transforms this into Miyazaki's second-most grounded directorial effort. It's a tangible environment that's free of the enchanted grandeur in Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, giving us a glimpse into the animated director's outlook on human interaction under normal means. It boils to a rousing conclusion much like his other films, making use of elements sprinkled throughout about aeronautics and Kiki's admirer, yet the way it leans on her raw emotions at the time helps to give weight to her path of growth and self-determination. Watching her finally come to grips with who she is, all while enduring her rocky path to "getting" herself, proves to be a sublimely touching and gorgeous conclusion to a tender addition to Miyazaki's oeuvre.
Disney have pieced together this re-released package of Kiki's Delivery Service in a polished two-disc presentation, carrying new menus and different cover artwork. A cardboard slipcase adorns the outside of the DVD, with raised lettering on the front. A chapter listing, however, has not been included, so it might be worthwhile to hold onto those leaflets if you have the previous editions in your possession.
Video and Audio:
As with Castle in the Sky's recent two-disc re-released package, timed to coincide with the arrival of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea on DVD and Blu-ray, Kiki's Delivery Service receives a very quiet upgrade for this 1.85:1 widescreen image that's enhanced for 16x9 televisions. One would probably assume that Disney would just carry over the image from the previous edition, merely rebadging this release to mirror the packaging on the other Miyazaki film released; thankfully, though the differences are subtle and some of the problems still exist, that's not the case. It makes an effort to rectify a few issues -- namely edge enhancement and mosquito noise -- with the previous transfer that caused it to be a slightly disappointing eyesore. These are minor refinements (whip out your magnifying glass for these screenshots) that'll become more obvious as the screensize increases on which they're shown.
The most obvious change is the removal of the reasonably thick black frame around the image, which helps Miyazaki's animation stretch to all points on the screen. Contrary to the transfer for Castle in the Sky, it looks like some information might have actually been restored in the points where the border has been removed. Colors are a bit more solid and detail has been tightened in a few areas, cleaning up the digital look in some blocks of color and in the contrast. Moreover, the unsightly edge halos brimming from around dark lines and such have been controlled, rendering much more suitable contours -- though light halos can still be spotted. Granted, all of these things come together into what will be seen as mostly a hairline improvement, but the appreciated boost in quality can be seen in the lush animation.
Here's a pleasant surprise: Kiki's Delivery Service arrives with both Japanese and English 5.1 tracks. Granted, both tracks are relatively front-heavy, but the addition of a full surround Japanese track is very welcome. The surround channels are mostly utilized for musical accompaniment, but a few elements like thunder rolling and a few hints of rain travel to the rears. Focus easily falls at the front with the dialogue, which sound buoyant and clear to immensely pleasing degrees. Though it's expected, and purists will lean to the proper track in the first place, it's worth noting that the English dub just isn't very good. Kirsten Dunst isn't half bad as Kiki, but the rest of the vocals are oddly-matched -- especially Phil Hartman's lower-based voice as the black cat, Jiji. When each of the English and Japanese languages are selected, certain elements in the film shift to match the language; for instance, in the shot featuring Kiki's bread wreath (pictured In the review), the text underneath changes from Kiki's Delivery Service to Japanese text (hiragana).
French and Spanish tracks are also available, along with glaringly yellow English, English descriptive, French and Spanish (hidden) subtitles that sit relatively high on the image itself. The subtitles mostly look to be taken from the English audio (dubtitles), but a few instances do differ from the language track.
The Introduction with John Lasseter has been preserved at the beginning of the film on Disc One, while the full-length Storyboard Animation version of the film -- complete with both English and Japanese audio -- has been carried over onto Disc Two. Also available is the rather bland Behind the Microphone (5:00, 4x3) piece that meanders about the English-speaking cast voicing the film, though it's great to see a young Kirsten Dunst discuss the role.
The World of Ghibli portion of the supplements breaks off into two sections: Behind the Studio and Enter the Lands which could just about be summed up as being "adults" and kids". Enter the Lands opens up an animated interface in the shape of an island (click for large image) where the user can select points on a map. Each point contains child-friendly rudimentary facts about most of the characters for each film featured, which are: Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Ponyo. What's sad to see is that there are several other points on the map featuring characters from four other Miyazaki creations -- Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart, and My Neighbors the Yamadas -- that are not selectable. Perhaps Disney is awaiting the right moment to release those in new editions, or maybe in high-definition? Still, seeing them there is a bit of a tease.
Behind the Studio gives us more meat to chew on Kiki's Delivery Service, breaking off into short two-to-three (2-3) minute segments discussing different elements of its construction. Interview time with Hayao Miyazaki and his collaborators adorn each of the features, focusing on him as he discusses how he wasn't originally the director in Creating Kiki's Delivery Service (2:23), how he knew very little about adolescent girls in Kiki and Jiji (3:28), and his challenges with illustrating the broomstick sequences in Flying with Kiki and Beyond (2:51). His producer Toshio Suzuki takes time to talk about his experience in Producer's Perspective (1:49).
Along with that, we've also got an excellent 29-minute excerpt from "The Scenery in Ghibli" that takes us through the locations that inspired Miyazaki's visuals (The Locations of Kiki, 29:01), a general piece on Miyazaki's composer Joe Hisaishi called Scoring Miyazaki (7:19), and a slew of Japanese Trailers (10:25) for Kiki's Delivery Service. Finally, three lengthy Previews for other Miyazaki films released at the same time -- Ponyo (3:58), Castle in the Sky (2:41, actually the "Character Sketches" featurette from the new disc), and My Neighbor Totoro (3:00).
Kiki's Delivery Service is a simple story told extremely well, a story of realization and determination that, though about a young witch, is about as grounded and non-magic in a literal sense as you'll see from Hayao Miyazaki. Charming characters adorn the story of Kiki's ups and down in discovering herself, giving the story a rich backdrop as it sweeps us along with her soaring broomstick rides across a gloriously animated landscape. Disney's presentation of Kiki's Delivery Service updates technical and supplemental aspects of the release to a modest degree, giving us a more refined visual transfer and a cluster of new extras that are worth the watch. Highly Recommended.