Hayao Miyazaki concluded his highly successful run through the 1980’s with Kiki’s Delivery Service, a warm hearted coming-of-age tale about a young witch who ventures out into the world with only her cat to keep her company. Kiki strikes us as your normal adolescent who lives with her perfectly typical nuclear family. And that is true enough assuming you put aside their love of the dark arts. She is busy preparing herself for an important rite of passage, wherein a young witch must leave home and stake her claim in a big city somewhere else in the world. From this premise Miyazaki has crafted one of his best films as he has take a Horatio Alger type story, drenched it in his trademark style, and turned out a wise and knowing fable.

When Kiki and her aptly named cat, Jiji, land somewhere in Europe in a city named Koriko there they find a harsh world that is none too happy about having a witch in their midst. For her first few days she spends her time dodging the fuzz and searching for a warm bed to stay in. Miyazaki is very good at allowing us to see the city through Kiki’s eyes, everything seems fresh and mystical and fantastical.

Not everybody she runs into is a hater and soon she meets Osono, a young, pregnant woman who runs a bakery out of her house and is happy to take her in. This allows Kiki to work off her room and board while slowly integrating herself into her new environment. Miyazaki has never been afraid of contradictions, and this film is no different, making the experience much more layered and fascinating. Things don’t always add up here, just life in real life, and it’s exciting to know that there is a director out there brave enough (and this trait of his continues on through his most recent work) to treat his audience as sentient beings who understand nuance.

Examining the film closely we realize that, at its root, it is about the universal disenchantment we have all felt at some point when we are forced to struggle every day to make a place for ourselves in the world. Kiki soon starts the eponymous delivery, using her broom flying abilities to become a high-tech bike messenger. In your average family movie this would be used to sell undercooked fairy tales about how hard work is its own reward and always pays off in the end, but things aren’t that easy here. After donating her day and canceling a hot date to help an elderly customer so that they could bake a cake together for her granddaughter, Kiki hand delivers it only to have the snooty teen feign outrage and express her disapproval. Throughout she also has to deal with inner demons such as weight and image issues which may sound like heavy stuff for the young ‘uns but at least Miyazaki is speaking honestly and directly with them about what lies ahead.

As with his other movies, Kiki’s Delivery Service focuses on the human desire to fly and how it doesn’t always work out. Kiki’s first love, Tombo, builds himself a bicycle with a propeller so at to gain wings but he never manages to get off the ground. Later on Kiki begins to lose her magical powers, no talking to Jiji and no flying, so she retreats inward and cuts off all extracurricular activities (read: Tombo) so that she can properly concentrate on her witch training. It is a seemingly cruel move made out of fear but it is also in line with what we know to be true about human nature. Fear is indeed a great motivator but not always best when it comes to making a rational decision. Miyazaki never lets us forget that this is a young girl who is on a journey of self-discovery and that means she will learn most her lessons the hard way; through trial and error, and the way he balances those hardships with a more palatable, less consequential story about a girl with magic powers is what makes this one of his best.

DVD Special Features:

A storyboard presentation of the movie, a behind the movie featurette, an introduction by Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, and the World of Ghibli interactive experience.

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Jeneane Garofalo, Tressa MacNeille
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 102 minutes
Rated: G