I've always heard good things about work coming from Studio Ghibli, and have thoroughly enjoyed some of the other movies produced by them. I'm glad to add this one to my list of favorites. There were a ton of things I loved about the animation itself, the plot, the messages it presented, and especially the characters. I feel that just about every aspect of it was strong and worked well as a whole, so there's no wonder Kiki's Delivery Service became Studio Ghibli's first major success.
First, the plot. The story is specifically about a thirteen-year-old girl witch named Kiki, who, in order to complete her training as a witch, must leave home for a year and find a place (such as a city) to live on her own, working to further develop her abilities. We learn through character dialogue that leaving home at this age for a year alone is a normal/necessary part of life for all witches, including her mother who is already quite skilled, and active in her craft (as accentuated during the first few scenes of the movie). She (Kiki) sets out with her talking cat and they soon find a large city they want to live in. (I was relieved to find that the movie didn't 'push' the fact that the cat can talk; his speech provides insight for Kiki, rather than just blabbing about for the sake of blabbing). The presentation of the city was well-done. Individual shots captured the artwork of the city, showed off a couple areas at several different angles (from Kiki's bird's-eye view, which was nice) and more dramatic shots, such as the shot looking down at the entire city which included the ocean's horizon line, and of course, Kiki flying on her broomstick observing the scene along with us. We also see well-blended cuts to her facial/body reaction to her first impression of the place, which we also feel because it was shown to the viewer in similar ways.
Now. We eto understand that she at first experiences difficulty fitting in - their modern ways of life are different from those back home. Although kind-hearted and generally optimistic, she also has an inner conflict - determining her own usefulness/purpose. We keep the reminder in the back of our minds that she's on a mission to complete her training; in order to do so, she must remain actice. Through the movie she is in constant motion - never over-exaggerated, but just enough to retain the realistic feel that real people in real life are familiar with. The only unrealistic thing here is the fact that she can fly (on a broomstick) and has a talking cat - who we quickly understand does not present its ability to anyone other than Kiki, and speaks when it's most appropriate.
Through her helpful caring nature she is rewarded with a place to stay, as well as a springboard from which she develops her own delivery service. She decided to do this after helping out a woman who needed something she'd left behind; Kiki brought her the object in no time flat. At this point, we see that the broomstick and her ability to fly is a major part of who she is, and is the only separating her from the other people. This is also accentuated in a few scenes where she compares herself to other characters - specifically other girls - who are dressed nicer or seem more outgoing/likable than she thinks of herself; people go through this, and it's a normal, everyday, human thing. The characters' weakness: she is doubtful about herself, and is a bit clumsy (in a non-exaggerated way).
Her business gradually gains recognition and customers. But soon a new problem arises; she loses her ability to fly (for a short while) and also communication with her cat, who then acts as though he's just a regular black cat. These are the very things that reinforce her identity, so when she looses them, she experiences an emotional turmoil and works frantically (at first) to regain this part of herself. But after a short trip with a new friend she made along the way - an artist (who is presented as a strong female character who understands the value in looking within herself to understand who she is as a person, therefore served as a good role-model for Kiki), she finds that she must search within herself to retrieve what she needs. In this way she regains her loses and develops an attitude toward life that defines the transition between Kiki as a no-nothing girl to a stronger, working young woman.
In short, the story is a sort of journey of self-exploration.
I was only able to watch it once (do to time management on my part); there was an eyeful of strong, realistic imagery and fabulous shot choices that impressed me. I made sure to pay good attention to the way they handled shot choices. Shots meant to give us a sence of space were presented at eye-level with characters - whether they were high up in the air, or on the street. There were also some nice cuts to just the scenery alone, so that we don't have to dwell on the characters alone.
Scenes that were meant to show the viewer some important aspect of a character's personality were especially well thought-out. When Kiki lost her powers, we watch in long-shots as she frantically works during the night trying to figure out how to fly again. The long shots deepened the sense that these actions would bear no fruit in this way, and deepened the sense of urgency and her fear. One or two close shots to her face plainly showed how she felt without words. And when she did speak about why she was so worried about losing the skill (it was like losing a part of herself), she'd be shown running out of a doorway or off-screen (through mostly mid-shots) as if she were also saying, "That's all there is to it, I'm scared, I don't want to say any more."
I also was to quickly comment about the art of the movie. I've always been a fan of the anime style - not just the way the characters were drawn (which felt pleasingly simple and uncomplicated; free-er forms), but also the city-scape, including great ocean views, detailed buildings - even the roads were detailed, and not just some weak slab of grey concrete (which is often a way out for animators, sadly). The sky as well; moving unrepeated cloud as different times of the day, and shifting hues in the sky that helped to mark the passage of time...
I'm also pleased that the animation was pretty smooth and included even the smallest gestures in characters that definitely made a difference. It was nice to see little things like eyes movements during conversation, poses and movements that helped describe certain thoughts or reactions. And what's even better - I bet anyone could watch the movie without sound and understand exactly what was going on. The timing of events and such is well-orchestrated, so there isn't a single part about the movie I'm confused about.
Kiki's Delivery Service is more of a family movie, so I recommend this to families, I suppose. But the movie is good for nearly every audience; it was such a joy to watch for me.