Studio Ghibli recently released the trailer for their newest film, Earwig and the Witch (2020). The film is based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones (of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) fame) and promises to deliver on standard Ghibli fare: a bildungsroman with a healthy dash of magic.
Oh, and it looks terrible. The film will be a departure from the studio’s iconic 2D animation of the past. Instead it will make use of 3D models which look, frankly, lifeless. All the charm and slick flow that make Ghibli so great seem lost. And the once charming “Miyazaki-style” looks kind of…creepy in the 3rd dimension. Now let’s be fair, maybe the film will blow us all away! But even if it doesn’t there is recourse for Ghibli lovers like myself. Another story of a young witch that has survived the test of time. I am of course referring to the second best Ghibli movie of all time, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
Personal Stakes, Magical Trappings
Kiki follows a young witch named Kiki and her familiar Jiji. The pair set out, as is customary for young witches, to be a magic-worker-for-hire in a nearby coastal town. Kiki deals with the uncertainty of leaving home for the first time. She suffers from imposter syndrome and the film follows her arc of learning to trust in herself and her talents. Like all Ghibli movies the story is poignant and touching. And it is helped along by an airtight script, clever dialogue, and fantastic performances in English and Japanese. Now some Ghibli movies get a bit swept away by their own whimsy and lose the plot. Take The Cat Returns (2002) for instance, which is thoroughly taken with its weird, magical elements. The bizarreness is so recursively self-examining it loses any of the profound impact of its predecessor Whisper of the Heart (1995).
Kiki, however, stays grounded throughout. The world is just ever so slightly touched with magic; only enough to fill it with whimsy. Some in the film even question the usefulness of magic in a world of modern technology. Kiki’s magic then becomes a metaphor for her own self-confidence, disappearing for most of the film. Instead, Kiki turns inwards. The film’s engine isn’t some grandiose quest but the internal, emotional, mental life of a young girl. And what’s more, this premise is never ridiculed or taken lightly. It carries just as much weight and import as the epic environmentalist message of Princess Mononoke (1997).
Of course, Kiki is brimming with that signature Ghibli magic. Not spells or potions, but the pure aesthetic delight that has captured generations of watchers. The opening shot of Kiki lying in the grass listening to her shortwave radio. Kiki and Jiji nestling into a hay bale to escape a summer rainstorm. The hilly, seaside Koriko with ships in the port and planes overhead. Every second of the film is oozing with Studio Ghibli’s signature serene landscapes, smooth animation, and mundane beauty. To have all this beauty, and a deeply impactful and universal message to boot is standard for Ghibli. But the degree of sheer perfection to which Kiki delivers these is rare even for the esteemed animators.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a near perfect movie that receives so little love compared to Howl or Spirited Away (2001). Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but for me? When I get the urge to watch a Ghibli flick, I know what my go to is.
Well, after Princess Mononoke, anyways.
Thumbnail image from kidsvt.com.
Are you a fan of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”?