The most popular kids' movie at this year's Seattle International Film Festival, "Kiki's Delivery Service," never had a theatrical run, but it's getting a national video launch this week.
This feature-length Japanese cartoon about a 13-year-old witch who leaves home for a year of potion-learning and broomstick-flying was directed by Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Totoro").
While it suffers from the limited facial animation of so many Japanese cartoons, the backgrounds, characterizations and story are consistently pleasing. The finale, in which Kiki flies off on her broom to thwart a runaway dirigible, is a real cliffhanger.
Kirsten Dunst is the voice of Kiki, Debbie Reynolds plays her grandmother and Janeane Garofalo is Kiki's artist friend. But the most distinctive voice on the English-dubbed soundtrack is the late Phil Hartman, who always has something sardonic to say in the role of Kiki's cat.
Nine of Miyazaki's cartoons have been picked up for American distribution by Disney's video company, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which is selling "Kiki" for $20 per tape. A group called Concerned Women for America has launched a protest against the company for picking up a film that promotes "divination," but Disney is going ahead with plans to release "Kiki" and its other Miyazaki cartoons.
Next up is "Laputa: Castle in the Sky," which the company will bring to video stores in 1999. Only one of the films will be getting a theatrical release. Miyazaki's most popular film, a 133-minute epic called "Princess Mononoke," which grossed $150 million in Japanese theaters, will make its American debut in theaters next year.
Miyazaki isn't the only Japanese animator represented on the Disney label. Also new from the company is "The Little Twins," a 13-part series about the adventures of young twins, Petal and Piper, on the magic island of Krockle. Carly Simon wrote and performed the title song for the English-language version, which aired this summer on Nickelodeon. The episodes are available on 60-minute tapes priced at $13 apiece.
Rhino Records is riding the Japanese animation boom this week by releasing a CD, "The Best of Anime," that includes music from such past faves as "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer."
Central Park Media, a New York video company, releases several Japanese-animation videotapes each month, including this week's "Make Way For the Ping Pong Club," a summer-camp comedy; "Area 88: The Blue Skies of Betrayal," about a flyer for the Asran Air Force; and "Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer," about a high-school class that relives the same day over and over, in the manner of "Groundhog Day."
The most acclaimed of Central Park's current releases is "Grave of the Fireflies," a somber 90-minute cartoon that won the prize for best animated feature at the 1994 Chicago International Children's Film Festival. The New York Times called it "elegiac and riveting."
It's set in Japan at the end of World War II and follows two children as they lose their parents, try to find a home with a relative who gives "distant aunt" a whole new meaning, and finally retreat to a bomb shelter to live.
Reminiscent of Japan's sobering mid-1980s feature cartoon about the Hiroshima bombing, "Barefoot Gen," it certainly packs an emotional wallop that most cartoon features rarely approach. Central Park's tape, which is quite nicely dubbed in English, is available for $30. Information: 212-977-7456.
Video Watch by John Hartl appears Thursdays in Scene.