The flag-waver for Buena Vista's rollout of nine top Japanese cartoons by Hayao Miyazaki, all revamped for the U.S. market, "Kiki's Delivery Service" is top-drawer kiddie fare for both fans of the exotic and mainstream family auds.

The flag-waver for Buena Vista’s rollout of nine top Japanese cartoons by Hayao Miyazaki, all revamped for the U.S. market, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is top-drawer kiddie fare for both fans of the exotic and mainstream family auds. Nippon’s box office champ back in 1989, this breathtaking feature has been given deluxe English-lingo re-recording, led by Kirsten Dunst as a teenage witch-in-training and the late Phil Hartman as her wisecracking cat. (It had a negligible Carl Macek dub job at the beginning of the decade.) New vid is skedded for a Sept. 1 launch, but reaction has been so strong on the fest circuit since its Seattle preem that BV is considering limited theatrical play. Pic’s offshore star has never faded — there are hundreds of Web pages devoted to it, as well as spin-off books, CDs and games — and there’s no reason to believe “Kiki” couldn’t inspire similar Stateside frenzy.

For animation buffs, pic’s main pull is extraordinarily detailed backgrounds that rival anything from the heyday of the Mouse House — an outfit helmer Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli has routinely trounced in Japan. “Kiki” is remarkable in its conception as well as its visuals: Miyazaki sets the story in a mythical, polyglot Europe of the 1950s — one, he says, in which WWII never happened. Result is cities and towns that resemble quainter places in Scandinavia, Italy, Japan and the U.S., with mixed-up typography (and iconography) to match. There’s also a delightful jumble of sights and sounds — ’30s blimps thrown in with bulbous ’40s cars and crude B&W TVs.

Big draw for parents will be the stellar voice cast, starting with Dunst, buoyantly believable as the 13-year-old who must leave home to find her way as a witch. The earnestness of her venture, which involves terrible broomstick takeoffs but unimaginably beautiful flights, is leavened by the presence of Jiji, her ground-hugging black cat. Hartman, who plays Dunst’s dad in “Small Soldiers,” was given free rein here: Since Jiji often talks offscreen, he added about 50% more material to the script, and at least 100% more sarcasm to comments that are unfailingly amusing and often downright hilarious. (“Yes, Kiki, you can fly very high and very fast,” the kitty sighs, while turning various shades of green.)

Also notable are Tress MacNeille as Osono, a pregnant baker who gives Kiki a delivery job and a new home in the seaside town of Colico; trouper Debbie Reynolds as an elderly lady helped out of a jam by our heroine; tube kid Matthew Lawrence as Tombo, an aviation-minded boy with a crush on the new witch in town; and Janeane Garofolo as Ursula, a mystical-yet-tough painter who inspires Kiki when her magical powers start to fail. This last blip is pic’s only downside, since it also deprives Jiji of speech for the final fifth of the story.

Overall, thoroughly delightful tale is stronger on character and texture than on plot, with Miyazaki’s masterful use of quiet spaces and expansive moods (especially in flying segs) offering a fresh contrast to hyped-up Yank toons. Pic does peak with one very exciting development, however, when Tombo is trapped on a Hindenburg-type dirigible that threatens to crash into Colico’s city center. Thrill factor is also raised by two upbeat folk-rock tunes by newcomer Sydney Forest.

Big-eyed, mostly Caucasoid characters, drawn in typical manga style, may not be to everyone’s tastes, but highly original, color-rich tale is such a self-contained treat, parents won’t mind the relentless replays tape will get.

Many folks will also appreciate “Kiki’s” gentle tone of empowerment in its portrayal of different generations of women helping to bring out one another’s strengths. Female skew hasn’t kept boys from embracing pic wherever it has played.

On the other hand, a right-wing group called Concerned Women for America has already protested the pic’s importation, accusing Disney of promoting “divination” and denigrating family values. (They cite “Fantasia” and “Peter Pan” as earlier evidence of Uncle Walt’s “darker agenda.”) At any rate, as part of the Ghibli deal, Disney can’t put its logo on, or cut in any way, the nine Miyazaki efforts in the package, which go out under the bland imprimatur of “Animation Celebration.” Next spell-caster due here is 1986’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” which is said to have enough major names on the soundtrack to guarantee wide release.

Kiki's Delivery Service

Japanese - U.S.

Production

A Buena Vista Home Entertainment presentation of a Studio Ghibli production, in association with Eiko Kadono, Tokuma Shoten, Nippon TV Network. Produced by Hayao Miyazaki. Executive producers, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Mikihiko Tsuzuki, Morihisa Takagi. U.S. version executive produced by Jane Schonberger.

Crew

Directed, written by Hayao Miyazaki, based on a book by Eiko Kadono. U.S. version adapted by John Semper, Jack Fletcher, with voices cast and directed by Fletcher. Camera (color), Shigeo Sudimura; editor, Takeshi Seyama; music, Joe Hisaishi, Paul Chihara, Sydney Forest; production designer, Hiroshi Ono; character designer, Katsuya Kondo; sound (Dolby), Shuji Inoue, Ernie Sheesley; special effects, Kaoru Tanifuji; associate producer, Toshio Suzuki; assistant director, Sinao Katabuchi. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 14, 1998. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Voices: Kiki - Kirsten Dunst Jiji - Phil Hartman Ursula - Janeane Garofolo Tombo - Matthew Lawrence Madame - Debbie Reynolds Osono - Tress MacNeille Barsa - Edie McClurg Mom - Kath Soucie With: Jeff Bennett, Pamela Segall, Debi Derryberry, June Angela, Corey Burton, Lewis Arquette, Fay Dewitt, Susan Hickman, Sherry Lynn, Matt Miller, Scott Menville, Eddie Frierson, John and Julia Demita.

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