At 13, Kiki (a warmly eager Kirsten Dunst) must leave her
loving family to spend a year on her own as part of her training to become
full-fledged witch. Setting out with her black cat-familiar Jiji (Phil Hartman
in his final role), Kiki lands in a sunny seaport town that suggests Northern Europe.
Put off by the cold reception she initially receives, Kiki has the good fortune
to meet Osono (Tress MacNeille). The kind and very pregnant proprietor of a bakery,
Osono offers Kiki a room and a job–and suggests she apply her flying skills to
a delivery service. This safe refuge enables Kiki to begin her real journey,
learning about herself as she copes with the demands of work, a limited budget,
the boredom and enthusiasm of adolescence and how to respond to the attentions
of Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), her first admirer.
Much of Kiki’s
charm comes from Miyazaki’s understated approach to the material. Instead of
grabbing the viewer by the lapels and insisting everyone’s having a great time,
Miyazaki leads the audience into the story with unobtrusive grace. Only
Miyazaki would open a film with a girl quietly lying amid flowers, listening to
the radio; only Miyazaki could make such a low-key beginning work. Kiki hears
something on the news that excites her. She runs to tell her mother, and the audience
follows her, eager to hear what’s so exciting.
All the characters are complex and multi-dimensional. Osono
serves as a warm substitute mother for Kiki, and her sense of humor keeps her from
becoming icky or smug. Osono’s baker-husband may be taciturn, but the animators
play with his expressions, revealing how closely he follows what’s going on. Tombo
exudes nerdy charm, and his fascination with Kiki’s ability to fly reflects
Miyazaki’s love of aviation. Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), the unconventional
artist, helps Kiki master an important lesson: Having an ability, whether
painting or magic, isn’t enough—the possessor has to find a reason to use the
On the original soundtrack, Rei Sakuma gives Jiji the kind
of small, childish voice Japanese audiences find cute. (He may sound a bit like
a Pokémon to Americans.) In the English dub, Phil Hartman’s sardonic
performance makes Jiji feel like a stronger character: When he argues with
Kiki, she has to listen. His increased presence makes it that much sadder when
Kiki loses her ability to understand him and he’s reduced to meowing.
Kiki herself is a more fully rounded and believable character
than any Princess in an American feature. She worries about getting fat, and
longs for shiny red shoes and prettier dresses. Overcome by adolescent angst
and discouragement, she flops onto her bed with dramatic resignation. Miyazaki
uses these unhappy moods to balance her essentially upbeat, helpful nature. The
mixture of enthusiasm, boredom, excitement and self-pity makes her unapologetically
human–more human than many animated or live action girls in recent films.
When he read Eiko Kakuno’s original novel, the director was
intrigued by the image of a young girl flying alone on her broomstick. In
contrast to the soaring aerial shots in many of his other films, Miyazaki shows
that Kiki is still very much a witch in training. Like a novice on horseback,
she has trouble maintaining her posture (and dignity). She steers erratically,
ricochets off tree branches and battles rain and wind.
In an American film, Jiji and Lily, a neighbor’s pretty
white cat, would have a wedding to legitimize their relationship, as Pongo and
Perdita do to in 101 Dalmatians.
Miyazaki is too much of a realist for that. At the end of the film, Lily just shows
up with a batch of kittens (as cats do), one of whom is a dead ringer for Jiji.
Over the closing credits, the audience sees the kitten riding Kiki’s broom with
a safety line as his father teaches him how to be a witch’s familiar.
The new Blu-ray release comes loaded with extras, including
short interviews with Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, composer Joe Hisaishi
and the key members of the English voice cast.
Disney: $36.99, Blu-ray and DVD, 2 discs