If you try to resist a movie this good-natured it almost feels like heresy. The story's as simple as it gets: a young witch from the country comes to the big city and makes good. But it's so well told and so gorgeously designed, its good cheer feels like a bonus. The movie in question is Kiki's Delivery Service, widely acclaimed as Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki's most immediately appealing work. Unlike the grand and sometimes somber Princess Mononoke, this story comes from a more optimistic part of Miyazaki's imagination, where people are basically good at heart and a little girl with cheer in her eyes can win the day.
Kiki is one of the few Miyazaki productions that was not originated by him or his team, but was instead adapted from a bestselling Japanese children's book (since translated, excellently, into English as well). The story has been brought to life with grand humor and charm, and also something else that seems to have gone missing from a great many movies for younger audiences — the movie assumes everyone in the audience is intelligent and curious, and doesn't condescend. Moreover, it brings them a story that is uplifting and inspirational without being sappy or obvious.
The same could be said of the book that inspired the film — in fact, not long after the American DVD was released, an English translation of the book appeared, and I picked it up. I was instantly reminded of the best stories from my own childhood, like Stuart Little — which unfortunately I now have a hard time thinking about without cringing, no thanks to the horrible movie adaptation. Somehow they managed to drop all of the wit and amused charm of the book and instead swap in the kind of cheerless boosterism that passes for insight in most children's movies. Kiki, thankfully, never makes that mistake; it's shot through with wit and charm to the center and back again.
Like her mother before her, the little witch Kiki has her broom and her ability to fly, but that's about it. Apparently witchcraft has fallen off a bit in recent times, although the few that survive do their best to lend their skills to those that need it. Kiki's plan is to head for a big city somewhere with her cat Jiji (who has a smart mouth on him), settle down there, and do her best. She's still a little unsure of herself, though: on her big flight out, she slams into the trees like she's in a pinball machine.
Her journey takes her to a bustling city near the ocean, where her idea of making an impression consists of almost causing a traffic accident (well, not on purpose!), then dropping onto a busy sidewalk and simply announcing, "My name is Kiki, and I'm a witch!" She's bailed out by the goofy Tombo, a bicycle-riding boy who develops an instant and immense crush on the girl, but Kiki pushes him away almost without thinking about it. She does find a good friend in the big-hearted baker Osono, however, and before long she's renting the room upstairs and using the phone to set up delivery appointments. Her first assignment: return a baby's pacifier.
Slowly Kiki accumulates a number of other friends. During a misadventure in the forest, she meets Ursula, a painter and slightly tomboyish free spirit who senses an unfulfilled need in Kiki. The girl needs another friend — specifically, someone her age, and someone who can tell her what to do when she's down on herself. Outwardly, Kiki tries to cultivate a cheerful face, but under it is a great deal of unresolved doubt and sadness, the sort of moodiness that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would have been simply self-indulgence. "Something must be wrong with me," she says. "I make friends, and then suddenly I can't bear to be with any of them."
Here and there are also hints of the concerns that would inform Miyazaki's other films. Consider a scene where Kiki accidentally crashes into a tree and upset's a crow's nest, and the birds gang up against her, thinking her for an egg thief. Kiki leaves, apologizing profusely, but is then forced to return to the same spot and must find a way to make peace with the animals she angered. ("Witches get no respect these days," Jiji wisecracks, "especially since crows used to be witch's servants!" "That was a long time ago!" Kiki retorts.)
Miyazaki has been seriously considered by some to be one of the greatest directors currently working, even if not one of his films features a living actor onscreen. In a sense, many movies are becoming more like what animation has always been, with CGI and special effects being used to mold existing reality into the shape desired by the filmmakers. Animators start completely from scratch each time with a blank page, and while they may draw inspiration from the world around them they are not wholly beholden to it. (Miyazaki and his team visited a number of European cities and created a credible but original amalgam of Old World look-and-feel for the architecture seen here.)
The movie's one main flaw is its ending. They spend a great deal of time developing the story, and then chose a climax that feels rushed, although not forced. But we do get a very sweet (and often funny) series of concluding shots under the credits. Everything that comes before it, however, is sterling. With Spirited Away reaching American audiences in both theaters and on home video, the rest of director Hayao Miyazaki's catalog is finally being reissued in decent U.S. DVD editions, and it has all been worth waiting for. If you have children, give them this movie, and the odds are they may do the same for their own someday.