Forget flying, Judge William Lee can't even curl properly with his broom.
"I was very determined to make a movie that would win over the hearts of spoiled girls."—Hayao Miyazaki
Among animation fans and anime nerds, Hayao Miyazaki is a household name. Movies by his Studio Ghibli are among the most beloved and respected works in the genre. Until about the mid-1990s, aside from a couple of English-dubbed versions, audiences in North America wanting to see his films had to settle for imported videotapes with amateurish subtitles. That all changed when Disney acquired the distribution rights to Miyazaki's catalogue and promised to release newly translated and remastered editions of his movies. The first to receive the Disney treatment, in 1998, was an adaptation of a novel about a teenage witch. That VHS release was followed by a two-disc DVD in 2003. Disney brings it back as Kiki's Delivery Service: Two-Disc Special Edition as part of its new marketing push.
Tradition calls for Kiki (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man 3), a 13-year-old witch, to leave home and prove herself in the world. With her black cat Jiji (Phil Hartman, Jingle All the Way), Kiki takes up residence in a town by the ocean. There she makes some new friends and starts a delivery-by-broomstick business. Living independently for the first time, Kiki struggles with her business, homesickness and self-doubt. For audiences that think of animation only in terms of Saturday morning toy commercials or princess musicals, Kiki's Delivery Service may seem quite foreign. I could write about how this movie lacks handsome princes, big musical numbers, sinister sorcerers and threats to the world that only one girl can prevent. But animated movies have become so much more sophisticated in the 21st century and I'd like to think that audiences' expectations of them have likewise evolved. Instead of listing what it isn't, let me describe what the movie is.
Kiki's Delivery Service is one of the gentlest, most charming movies I've seen, with a couple of absolutely thrilling sequences. The physics of Kiki's clumsy flights look convincing and impart a sense of magic and peril. The story pacing takes its time, yet it's captivating. The character designs are elegant and the animation is accomplished. The undulating grass and billowing fabric looks so real and natural that the illusion of wind moving against objects is wholly convincing. The backgrounds are impressively detailed and the artwork conjures a sense of being flooded by happy childhood memories. The 1998 English dub was my first exposure to the world of Miyazaki and I was instantly hooked by his unique vision.
The architecture of the seaside town of the movie is made up of elements from different European cities. In an interview, Miyazaki says he imagined a Western city in a reality where World War II never happened. It is a timeless location that exists in his memories, filtered through his imagination. The mood of the movie isn't merely nostalgia for a time of innocence. Rather, it revels in an atmosphere of wonderment and goodness. This is a movie that I can return to again and again because I'm always disarmed and enchanted by it. What it delivers to me is a feeling of optimism and the hope that in real life we'll also have modest adventures, encounter decent characters and that will lead us to discover something about ourselves.
Since the beginning of their association with Studio Ghibli, Disney has displayed negligence when it comes to promoting these imported gems. The North American marketing of Miyazaki's movies has been tepid at best. Coinciding with the DVD and Blu-ray releases of Ponyo, Disney has reissued two-disc DVD sets of My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service. The three DVD titles (I'll refer to them as the "new batch") come in new packaging artwork featuring a blue "Disney Presents a Studio Ghibli Film" banner across the top and a golden spine for the movie's title. At first glance, you wouldn't notice these are all special editions unless you read the smaller print on the sticker applied to each box and the contents listed on the back. Most of the extra content appears to be material assembled to promote Ponyo in Japan. That content is divided into smaller portions and shared among the three "new batch" titles.
On Disc 1 you get the movie along with the unnecessary introduction by Pixar head John Lasseter (Cars). This is the same mastering of the movie that appeared on Disney DVD in 2003. In his review of that release, Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger spotted edge enhancement. Indeed, that ugly, ghostly outline is visible but it's not a major offender. Colors don't exhibit the boldness and gloss of more recent cartoons but they still look rich and consistent. Considering that the movie dates back to 1989, the picture quality is superb. To get an idea of how bad the image could have been, skip ahead to the closing credits and notice how degraded the picture is after the text is printed over the animation.
A definite benefit to fans in the Disney-Ghibli relationship is the recording of excellent English translations and this movie is a prime example of the fine voice work afforded by the big studio. Remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, the English vocal talents include a fittingly melodic Kirsten Dunst, an appropriately comedic Phil Hartman and a soothingly warm turn as Osono, the bakery owner, by the ubiquitous Tress MacNeille (The Simpsons Movie). Some changes since the previous DVD release: the Japanese language track is upgraded to 5.1 surround, plus Spanish and French language options are added as well.
Disc 2 contains the new and old bonus material. Maintained from the previous edition are: the original storyboards for the entire movie, the original Japanese trailers and promos (10 minutes), and "Behind the Microphone" (5 minutes) featuring brief interviews with the English voice cast. If you're contemplating the double-dip, here's a breakdown of the new supplemental material:
• Creating Kiki's Delivery Service (2:25): Miyazaki talks about the inspiration for the film.
• Kiki and Jiji (3:25): Producer Toshio Suzuki talks about the genesis of two characters.
• Flying With Kiki and Beyond (2:45): Miyazaki on how the animators approached the flying sequences; he also mentions that this was the studio's first box office hit.
• The Producer's Perspective: Collaborating with Miyazaki (1:45): Producer Toshio Suzuki talks about his role and working with Miyazaki.
• The Locations of Kiki (29 minutes): This is an excerpt from a Japanese documentary, The Scenery in Ghibli. The host visits Sweden in search of the real locations that inspired the setting of the movie. As reference, the host is equipped with a book of storyboards and sketches so no screen time is wasted with clips from the movie. It's a fascinating way to try to see the world as Miyazaki does.
• Scoring Miyazaki (7:20): An interview with composer Joe Hisaishi about his approach to scoring the director's movies. It's an informative talk but he only mentions the three "new batch" titles. This is the same interview that's also included among the extras for those movies.
• Enter the Lands: This is an interactive feature that's included on all of the "new batch" titles. A map of a magical island appears with icons suggesting where each movie takes place in the "World of Ghibli." Users navigate the cursor to each location to activate trailers and character profiles. The Kiki's Delivery Service icon opens a questionnaire. It's a personality assessment that tells you which character from the movie you are most like. It's fun to poke around with this interactive feature the first time but its appeal wears off quickly. A point of frustration is that there are icons on the map for more Ghibli films but the only active areas are for those of the "new batch."
There is also a "collectible litho" included inside the case. It's an attractive reproduction of the cover art, minus the text, printed on card stock.
Initially, I almost dismissed Kiki's Delivery Service: Two-Disc Special Edition because it looked like a straight reissue of the previous two-disc edition. Disney has to stop being so lazy about the marketing for these movies. In its vaults, Disney has a deep and diverse repertoire of quality family entertainment yet they still appear unsure about how to handle the Ghibli films. Its association with the Japanese studio and Miyazaki should cement Disney's credibility as the company that provides the best family entertainment there is regardless of language, borders and cultural differences. Sadly, Disney hasn't yet made good on its end of the deal and they're missing the opportunity to capitalize on a catalogue of great works.
If Kiki's Delivery Service isn't in your DVD library yet, now is the time to add it. This special edition set includes some extras that fans will really appreciate, courtesy of Ponyo. If you're not interested in more interviews and visiting the locations that inspired the animators, you can safely stick with the previous edition.
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