‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ on HBO Max

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Japan, 1989) carries us into the experiences of a young witch as she charts her path in the real world. Sincere, spirited Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control – her takes-offs are still a bit erratic.

She picks a picture postcard seaside town of red tiled roofs and cobble stone streets, a quaintly European village mixing old world architecture and the bustle of contemporary life rendered in loving detail. It’s daunting at first but with luck and pluck she finds a home above a bakery, starts her own business (a high flying delivery service) and begins making friends.

Hayao Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life, a refreshing change from the Disney tradition that every American animation studio emulates with splashy song breaks, slapstick comic relief, and life-and-death Indiana Jones-like climaxes. The magic of Kiki is the girl’s sense of wonder in her new world, whether it’s her soaring flight among the migrating geese or a bicycle ride with Tombo to see the dirigible. My favorite moments involve Kiki’s friendship with the young woman Ursula, an independent young artist who becomes a big sister and role model. When Kiki loses her self-confidence Ursula invites her to her rural cabin for a sleepover and a self-esteem boost, enough reassurance for Kiki to come the rescue in a spectacular finale involving the out-of-control dirigible.

For adults there’s clever, understated humor that runs through the picture, lampooning movie merchandising with images of Jiji on coffee cups and in stuffed animals and a winking come on line to the furry white feline next door: “Hello, kitty.”

Available with original Japanese and English language soundtracks. The American release features the voice of Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, a gently subdued Phil Hartman as Jiji, Matthew Lawrence, and Janeane Garofalo.

Rated G

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Kiki’s Delivery Service [Blu-ray+DVD]
Kiki’s Delivery Service [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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