Looking at Ghibli’s overall body of work, you can tell which of their films are original properties and which are adaptations. Unless it’s a passion project like The Wind Below, generally speaking, the less weird creatures around, the more likely it is to be an adaptation. Such is the case with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Based off the novel by Eiko Kadono, Kiki is the story of a young witch who goes out on her own and starts a broom-based delivery service. It’s a charming, simple coming of age tale, but it has always left me wanting more. After seeing some of Ghibli’s later original work dealing with the same themes (Spirited Away would like a word), it’s hard to go back. That said, the film is not without merit and is something any fan of the studio should see, though not before some of their other works.
Kiki’s Delivery Service could really just be called “What I did on My Summer Vacation.” A girl who just turns thirteen leaves her parents for the first time, gets a summer job, meets a boy, and deals with self doubt and trying to fit in. All are the hallmarks of a standard coming of age story, wrapped up in a girl who happens to also be a witch. Which brings me to one of my first issues with the story. While Kiki is indeed a witch, other than the flying (and the charming talking cat), the witch part of her character is never really utilized. Just after leaving home, she meets another witch who informs her that she is training as a fortune teller after which Kiki ponders what she wants to learn. The meeting implies that two things: one, that all witches possess the ability to fly, and two, that Kiki is on a mission to learn another skill and grow in that regard. Except that she never does. Her only skill is in fact flying, which helps lead to the creation of her delivery service. And while the intention is that she overcomes her feeling of being average (in witch terms, not normal humans) and uses her one skill to her advantage, we never see her trying and failing at anything else. It is a simple storytelling element that would have made the payoff much more impactful.
The shortcomings of the story are lessened a bit since Kiki is so damn likable. She is written expertly as someone who wants to help but hasn’t been around long enough to quite figure it all out yet. It doesn’t hurt that almost everyone she meets wants to help her out in some way. The worst things people do to her is ignore her. This is her story and, for the most part, her struggle is all inner.
The lack of many external antagonizing forces is perhaps what makes the ending feel so out of place. Flying is a major theme in the film, not just with Kiki and her broomstick, but with her friend Tombo and his obsession with flying machines. Towards the end of the film we learn that a dirigible has landed outside of town. No build up or mention of it before, it just seems like an aside, something to get Kiki and Tombo to bond. The film’s finale involves the airship getting involved in an accident and upon seeing Tombo on board, Kiki takes it upon herself to save him. It’s a big set piece in a film that, up until that point, was rather slow and introspective. Did we really need the catalyst of a crashing blimp for Kiki to believe in herself? Maybe. But if that is the case, a little more build up to the blimp would have made the story stronger. As mentioned earlier, a small, easy to make adjustment to the storytelling would have helped the film a lot. But as it stands, one can’t help but feel that Kiki could have turned out better that it did.
Not that this is a bad film by any means, it’s just…safe. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are likable and Miyazaki takes the time to make the town really shine. By the end of the film you feel as if you live there. But when a story boasts a witch as a protagonist, I do expect a little more certain level of the fantastic. Kiki’s Delivery Service, for better or worse, is just so ordinary.