Disney Does Ghibli

The report on the Disney version of 'Kiki's Delivery Service'

By Jennifer Diane Reitz


The May 23, 1998 Seattle International Film Festival was the site of the world premiere of the Disney version of Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli's masterpiece 'Kiki's Delivery Service'. It was clear from the start that no one in the festival, or at Disney understood the value of the work, as the film was scheduled as part of the 'Children's Festival' and both staff and the Disney executive were visibly shaken by the almost entirely adult audience. With a weak, 'Hello Children' the obligatory Disney marketing drone addressed the packed theatre, booked to overflowing with folks over the age of 25. Only a handful of children were present, amidst the throng of savvy anime fans.

Good news, weak news:

The good news is that the voice casting works, and while not entirely true to the script, and certainly not up to the caliber of the earlier, exacting, Carl Macek version, it does present an enjoyable experience. Phil Hartman makes for a very witty version of Jiji the cat, though with a very different sound than the Jiji we have come to know and love. Kirsten Dunst is very good as Kiki, and for the most part all other voice acting is quite acceptable. Disney has honored their contract, and not one frame has been cut.

On the sad, but not quite catastrophic side, a significant portion of the original score has been altered, and very much for the worse. While most of the original music is intact, cheaply done piano replaces some key scenes, and there is hardly any moment in the film devoid of music or sound...even if grotesquely inappropriate. The Disney representative was clear that Miyazaki's works were being 'mainstreamed' for what Disney considers the American market, and this seemingly includes a definite belief that no moment should be quiet.

The loss of so much of the beautiful original soundtrack, replaced with weak piano versions of 'Hall of the Mountain King' quite made me sad, but fortunately the brilliance of Miyazaki somehow overcame this. Poor and sappy songs replace the catchy tunes on Kiki's ubiquitous transistor radio, also to my great dismay. Dismay, and 'Disney' seem related words, in general.

Overall, however, the spirit of Kiki wins the day, and the Disney version is not without merit, though it is appallingly clear how little they understand of what they have access to. Certain moments are very well done, especially some of the comments by Hartman, and Dunst really does capture the soul of the innocent Kiki astoundingly well. Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo also put in performances with just the right feeling and tone.

My conclusion is that the overall work, while not to the standards expected in anime, in terms of real honoring of the source material, is acceptable. The changes to the soundtrack hurt, and I prefer the 'unmainstreamed' dub done by Macek for its purity and unembellished translation -the Disney dub barely tries to follow the original script at times- but Kiki ala' Disney is still better than nothing, and even special in its own way, at times.

It is clear that Ghibli, that Miyazaki, made a deal with the devil, they knew it, but they made the only rational choice in the long run. As Miyazaki doubtless reasoned: small anime companies would be faithful and reverent to the material, but Disney will be around forever. That relative immortality that only the Disney Empire can provide will keep Miyazaki's works alive...even if in slightly tattered form....for centuries past the fading memory of the companies that dutifully import us pristine anime. Disney is a powerful god, and the only real hope to keep Miyazaki's works alive indefinitely. With Disney, Kiki will never be 'Out Of Print' for long, and will be guaranteed a world-spanning distribution.

I only wish that the contract could have included the protection of not only every frame, but also of the soundtrack, and of the translation to English from the original.

I truly fear how far Disney will go in replacing the music of the Ghibli films. You should too...now that Disney has Miyazaki, they will never let him go, and you will never see another version than what they create from now on. Let us hope this is as far as they go: altering perhaps 35%, no more.

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