Round 6: Character Driven Heights

Kiki’s Delivery Service vs. All Dogs Go To Heaven


Sweet Sincerity

                        This time, in both respective entries, Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki altered their approaches a bit, calling back elements of what they’d done well before while adding some new ideas. Both had passion to their visions, and after some time in production, both came out with movies that showed it.


Kiki’s Delivery Service: I’d be proud to call myself a fan of Miyazaki’s work. I’d be happy to say which of his movies is my favorite. Except on a list that includes action-packed epics, nail-biting heists, and mind-bending tales of magic, he somehow managed to make it his tween girl coming-of-age film. Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of those movies that eventually made me forget everything else and wrapped me up in the story to the point where I only realized just how much I’d loved it as it ended. I couldn’t justify it. I can only smile every time I remember it or watch it again.

Kiki is our protagonist, a witch who has just reached her 13th birthday. She’s hopeful, though a bit insecure, and despite some teenage angst and impetuousness, she shows true decency. Like people we know in real life, she doesn’t have a single trait that stands out above all others, but she is three dimensional. Many people, perhaps even outside the target demographic, may see themselves in Kiki. She’s an appropriate center for a story like this.

In the tradition of witches in this world, Kiki leaves home at age 13 to live a year on her own, flying on her mother’s broom with her black cat Jiji to find a city to settle in. They come across a city inspired by towns in Sweden, drawn with beautiful detail, and Kiki decides to move in. Because she has not found a magical talent besides flying on her broomstick, other than talking to Jiji, she decides to start the titular delivery service.

One of the most beloved aspects of the movie is its characters, who make every little adventure of Kiki’s interesting. After meeting some cold indifference in the new town, a jolly baker named Osono offers to let Kiki use their spare room. She and her husband are expecting their first child, and she takes to filling the maternal role for Kiki almost naturally. A local boy named Tombo, who loves aviation, takes a liking to Kiki that at first goes unreciprocated. He makes for one of the more unique romantic interests I’ve seen. One of her deliveries leads Kiki to go out of her way to help a kindly old woman, for which life at first seems to reward her with a disheartening slap. And a spirited painter named Ursula becomes an interesting friend, providing Kiki with the perfect encouragement in the moment she needs it. Every outing with these people is punctuated with little unforgettable details, from a special casserole baked in an old-fashioned oven to a bike built by Tombo to run with a large propeller connected to the pedals. All of these put the animation to good use, which is sometimes what makes them memorable.

If that were that, I’d give it the same score as the standard good examples of Miyazaki’s filmmaking and compare it to My Neighbor Totoro as a movie that targets a slightly older demographic with a similar vision. But everything is taken to the next level when we reach the third act, one of my favorites in any movie.

After a small string of letdowns, and a revelation that even flying can get boring, Kiki comes home to discover that she can no longer understand Jiji or fly, effectively crippling her success, and the movie moves beyond a single demographic, reaching out to everyone. Ursula compares it to artistic blocks she gets from time to time.

“Sometimes I’m unable to paint a thing,” says Ursula.

“Without even thinking about it I used to be able to fly,” answers Kiki.

Who, in that light, can’t relate to Kiki? Is there anyone who never, say, spent the afternoon missing baskets they usually make, or stumbled over questions in a class they’d been passing, or tried to write a story and found themselves at a loss on where to begin? Ursula would suggest coming back to it later.

“We fly with our spirits,” Kiki informs her in a rather touching scene.

“That same spirit is what makes me paint and makes your friend bake,” she answers reflectively “but we each need to find our own inspiration.”

But Kiki finds herself in the one moment that demands she draw it out when a friend needs her the most. What does she learn from this? Probably not to underestimate herself. Life can have a way of putting us to the test, and while humility is to be valued, many of us are worthier than we give ourselves credit for. We all have our own cause to inspire us.

Final score: 9.5/10


All Dogs Go To Heaven: Sometimes I still think the most fun I ever had with movies was watching my first animated films. Perhaps no stories since have made me as nervous when someone was in trouble, or as excited when the action grew intense, or as happy when the heroes triumphed. Part of it was of course being young and naive, but for pure film escapism, I still think a hand drawn atmosphere may be the best suited of all. But still, it’s not the same when you get older, and there was a period where I thought I was past liking animated movies as much as I used to, until I revisited All Dogs Go To Heaven. This movie is the reason I became a fan of Don Bluth.

Charlie the dog, with the voice and mannerisms of Burt Reynolds, lives a gangster’s life in New Orleans. He’s always looked out for himself and enjoys playing the game of life. His sinister business partner, a pit bull named Carface, double crosses him, and he ends up in heaven, as dogs are “naturally good”. But Charlie desires more adventures (and payback) and swipes the watch that is his life counter, returning to earth. But he’s followed by cries of “you can never come back” that haunt him throughout the movie. Back on earth, Charlie steals Carface’s secret weapon for betting on animal races, a creature he imprisoned that can communicate with not just its own kind but every animal; an orphan girl named Anne-Marie.

The rivalry with Carface is pushed to the background, as the real story, and the driving force running the show, is Charlie’s character arc. He’s not exactly a good guy, but he is likable and fun to follow. Even when he’s angry or upset, there’s real energy to the character that keeps the audience engaged. And though he’s hardly selfless, we really do care about him. He’s a lovable rogue, and we can just glimpse kindness in him. He goes well with his best friend Itchy (Dom DeLuise), the comical but loyal dachshund. But what really develops him is his relationship with little Anne-Marie. Sweet and naive but not stupid, bratty, or overly cutesy, Anne-Marie is a well done character. She never holds grudges, and she’s nothing but friendly to Charlie (who”rescued” her), but she tells him when she’s displeased with him. When something he asks her to do feels wrong, she refuses. So he plays the role of friend and philanthropist to keep her happy and get her to work with him. It’s self-motivated, but we are quick to note that it separates him from Carface, whose preferred tactic was to bully her. He’s not looking for a friend (and doesn’t like being kissed on the nose), but still she grows on him.

What really boosts the whole effect is the atmosphere. In giving off a sense of sheer emotion, light and dark, All Dogs Go To Heaven’s is still the most resonant animated film I’ve seen. The colors are rich and invigorating and give the world onscreen a presence. But that wouldn’t be enough on its own. Bluth’s movies tend to have a sincerity to them, and here he takes that charm to the next level. The three leads all have chemistry together, and we only grow more invested in them as the movie goes on. Bluth permits them to act a bit unusual and have some unconventional adventures, which some people find off-putting. This is perhaps his most polarizing movie. I do have to take points off for the scene in which a giant alligator appears from out of nowhere, but even that was amusing enough. The villain is a nice touch too, in that he provides excitement above the standard for Bluth’s movies. The humor works well, both on a cute level and for hardy laughs, but the genuine moments, wisely limited and free of treacle, are probably even more effective. The ending scene may be the most touching I’ve ever seen in animation.

All Dogs Go To Heaven, polarizing indeed, did not achieve the most success of all Bluth’s works, but those who understand it may find it to be his most passionate project of all. I highly recommend it.

Final Score: 9.5/10

Winner: Bluth. As much as I love Kiki’s Delivery Service, All Dogs Go To Heaven finishes a good two places ahead of it on my animation favorites list. It recalls of the biggest difference between the two directors. Miyazaki has been more consistent, as it seems he knew exactly what he wanted to be and what types of stories he wanted to tell. Bluth started his company as lead director to revive his beloved animation, which is a less specific goal but on the other hand could be a sign of even greater passion. He has had less success, but if all the pieces fall into place, he might have even more to offer than Hayao Miyazaki. He definitely won me over this time.


The Different Dubs

            I suppose I should say what I think about the different English dubs of Kiki’s Delivery Service vs. the original one in Japanese. (If you know where to find the second English dub, let me know.) I found Phil Hartman’s Jiji likable and often funny. Though some lines added for him in the first English dub (Disney’s) were just as well unsaid, it came across as the character just being himself and never felt detracting. (The original Jiji was voiced by a woman, as is common in Japan when cats of either gender are given a voice, and acted as the voice of reason for Kiki. I’m sure this was all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly sound like an interesting character.) When I learned that he originally lost the ability to speak to Kiki permanently, I thought it was a serious difference that demanded one pick a version to side with, but after thinking about it, it’s really not. There’s no need to feel sorry in the version where their relationship changes for good, as relationships sometimes do. Kiki and Jiji both still remember the past, and, as we see in the credits, they’re still friends and still appreciate each other. Kiki matures beyond talking to her cat in one version and matures into reconnecting with him in another.

The other big point is the two songs, which were changed in Disney’s dub from Japanese pop songs to English pop songs. Purists, of course, are always outraged when American dubs slap contemporary music over songs made for the movie. This time, I believe it was the other way around, as Studio Ghibli selected songs from then-popular singer Yumi Matsutoya, while Sydney Forest recorded the English songs specifically for the movie. Dare I suggest that Forest’s music actually works better? The point in both versions seems to be to convey the experience of living life, first starting in a new direction and then finding one’s way, but Forest’s songs add something else; a sense of investment. They speak to not only experiencing life but to living it, treasuring it (particularly the second one). Their removal in the third English dub, which also trimmed a few of Jiji’s unnecessary lines, is the only reason I prefer the first one, which I’d say became a beloved hit in America for a reason. It’s the same quality that puts Kiki’s Delivery Service above Miyazaki’s similar movies for me.


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