Film Review from 2010 DVD Re-Release Coverage
Don't let Kiki's Mickey Mouse bow, her cute lil' cat, and the soft European-inspired settings fool you.
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.
Timed to coincide with the home-video release of The Wind Rises, as well as the looong-awaited remastered release of Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service arrives from Walt Disney Home Entertainment in a fairly standard two-disc Blu-ray presentation: Disc One being the Blu-ray and Disc Two being the nearly-bare DVD feature disc from the 2010 Re-release (review here). The cover artwork and shiny gold-spine slipcover, with raised lettering on the front, mirror that of the most recent DVD edition of the film, while Disney have actually thrown some disc artwork on the Blu-ray this time around (though, nothing terribly fancy). Menu design largely mirrors that of the DVD as well, with the canvas-style background, brushstroke menu overlay, and expanding and contracting stills from the film.
Video and Audio:
The last time we chatted about Kiki's Delivery Service, via the re-released DVD, I was splitting hairs over minor, subtle improvements in digital quality: improved compression, color solidity, edge enhancement and framing. If I could jump back in time to show myself the stark advancement made by Disney's Blu-ray, I'd chuckle at the time wasted scrutinizing such minuscule upgrades.
Framed at 1.85:1 through a 1080p AVC encode, this transfer of Miyazaki's minor masterwork blows the previously flawed treatments out of the water in every facet. Colors that were flat and lifeless before (pale skin tones, faded foliage) are vibrant and well-balanced, sticking closely to the animation's intentions but getting shades across the board far more naturally vivid. The problematic edge enhancement from previous releases has disappeared, yet the artwork's black lines are strong and lack distortion. Fine brushstrokes and textures in the static settings -- the wood paneling and drapes in the bakery, gobs of paint on an easel and the metallic streaks on a canister, the scaffolding and window panes of the pseudo-European setting --are beyond satisfyingly sharp. Much of the digital/film noise has been bridled, yet the presence of grain can still be spotted. It's incredibly hard to imagine that this artwork reflects twenty-five years (!) of age, because Kiki's Delivery Service now appears as if it were minted yesterday through this Blu-ray, and not in an artificial capacity. In short, I'm stunned.
Disney opted to bring Kiki's Delivery Service back to its original 2-channel stereo design for its DTS-HD Master Audio track, mirroring the Japanese Blu-ray, so the light expansion of surround ambience created by thunderstorms, forests, and the bustle of the city aren't present. The effect was negligible, though, along with the musical stretching, making it sound like little more than a bloated stereo offering anyway. What's been gained here, however, far exceeds those perceived enhancements: the age of sound effects in train travel, bells chiming, and rainfall has been drastically improved, showcasing little strain and a reputable amount of mid-range activity. Effects like cows chomping on hay, the sliding of pans and thumps in a baker's kitchen, the scrubbing of floors and the pitter-patter of Jiji's feet are exceptionally sharp and aware of their surroundings. Dialogue is exquisitely articulated, nuanced and aware of mid-range fidelity, and the gleefully sweeping music remains strong yet not overbearing against the sound effects, which are smartly (yet inconspicuously) separated across the channels. Quite satisfying.
The original Japanese recording, the English dub with Kirsten Dunst as Kiki and Phil Hartman as the cat Jiji, and a French dub are all available in 2.0 Master Audio tracks. Similar to the previous DVD release, the subtitles largely mirror the English dub in most areas, but there are several instances that differ between the two that seem to bring the subs' translation closer to the script's original intention (such as the correct usage of "coffee" in these subs for the beverage Osono serves to Kiki, instead of the "hot chocolate" used in the dub). English SDH and French subtitles are also available, all in crisp, legible white lettering that's a great deal more pleasing to the eyes than the harsh yellow letters from the DVD; note that the Spanish language options, both audio and subtitles, have been nixed.
For the most part -- for all intents and purposes, really -- everything pertinent to Kiki's Delivery Service has been ported over from the 2010 DVD re-release of the film, with the inclusion of Ursula's Painting (3:18, 4x3), a three-minute vintage glimpse at the fantasy painting featured in the film. The World of Ghibli extras structure, which also included general information about the breadth of Miyazaki's work in another kid-friendly section, has been dropped for this release; the Behind the Studio "division" of the content has been abandoned, but all the Kiki-centric individual featurettes still make their appearance on the Blu-ray as individual parts. Here's a rundown of everything that's included (further coverage on these features can be found in DVDTalk's Review of the 2010 DVD, here):
Sneak Peeks for Frozen: The Singalong Edition (1:20, 16x9), the live-action Cinderella film (1:08, 16x9), and Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Lost Missions (:34, 16x9) are also available, along with trailers for 101 Dalmations on Blu-ray (1:12, 16x9), Big Hero 6 (1:42, 16x9), and Legend of the Neverbeast (1:06, 16x9) at the start of the disc. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD Copy of Kiki's Delivery Service, the feature disc from the re-released DVD.
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 broomstick rides across a gloriously animated landscape. Disney's new Blu-ray presentation of Kiki's Delivery Service casts quite a spell in high-definition, soaring far beyond the flawed DVDs in accurate audiovisual prowess while retaining most of the supplemental goodies from the re-released package, including the storyboard version of the film and several interviews with Miyazaki and his creative team. Very, very Highly Recommended.