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The Dub Reviewer: Kiki’s Delivery Service

by Jon Turner

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When Disney announced that it would be bringing Hayao Miyazaki’s work to audiences outside of Japan, a mixture of anticipation and dread echoed from longtime fans. For some, this meant that Disney’s resources and marketing skills could pave wider exposure for this man’s works in the United States, while others simply stated that the Mouse House was setting out to destroy Studio Ghibli and sabotage its chances for success. Indeed, when the first release under the new deal, Kiki’s Delivery Service, premiered on VHS on September 1, 1998, there were mixed reactions.

For the most part, mainstream critics greeted the newly commissioned Disney dub with enthusiastic notices, with many calling it one of the best dubs ever made. Most of the reviews were especially complimentary of the performances of the cast, and even sites such as AnimeDream, StompTokyo, and Ex.org were very favorable. There are even fans on other websites who have considered this one of their favorite Ghibli dubs. That said, Kiki‘s dub has also received its share of extremely harsh detractors; for instance the Ghibli Blog declared it one of “the worst Disney-Ghibli dubs ever” and that it “deserves to be banned with Warriors of the Wind” (then again he said the same thing for Castle in the Sky, which is a grossly underrated dub IMO, as well as Whisper of the Heart), while MovieVault‘s LeApprenti stated that the dub was “worse than Spirited Away, and the dubbing for that film is already lacking in itself.” Indeed, to this day there are those who abhor the dub, declaring it as an insult to a great movie and would rather see it burned at the stake. Love or hate the Disney version, though, it still proved to be popular, selling over a million copies, and introducing newcomers to Miyazaki.

Recorded in 1997 but released in 1998, this dub has a vocal cast directed by Jack Fletcher, who also helmed the English tracks for Princess Mononoke and the aforementioned Castle in the Sky. All three of these dubs have had their share of fans and vocal naysayers, but they’re also renowned for mixing all-star cast performances with recognizable voice actors from other cartoons, and even some voiceovers for Anime dubs of the time. I’ve always liked this approach, as it gives the dubs something of a multi-cultural feel which lends a very intriguing mix to the dubs. Despite insistences from some fans that Kiki should only be watched in Japanese, I have found it hard to do so, as I find this dub, along with any of the other Ghibli tracks, quite charming.

Interestingly enough, Disney’s version of Kiki wasn’t the only English version made; sometime in the early 1990′s, Carl Macek of Streamline Pictures also produced a dub. You may be surprised to discover that most of the creative staff behind this older dub is the same folks who did the similarly terrific (for its time) My Neighbor Totoro, as it also shares some of the same voice actors. Unfortunately, this dub has not been seen for many years; recorded, like Totoro, for international showing on Japan Airlines, it has only been released on Japanese laserdisc. The buzz behind this older dub is that it is more faithful than Disney’s version, but not by much. (In fact, the subtitle track on the Disney DVD release is the dub script for the Streamline dub!) Due to the difficulty of obtaining this dub, I had to listen to samples from the CrystalAcids.com website for critiquing, as you will see later on.

The major differences in Disney’s version are that there are some extra pieces of music. As much as purists objected to this practice (and some even castigated the dub for this alone), the reason behind them was because test audiences got antsy during initial showings of the dub with the silences. So it was decided to commission musician Paul Chihara to provide additional background material, most of which is just soft piano solos, occasional comical “rifts” (“Mickey-mousing” style), and a vocal accompaniment by June Angela. These musical alterations are only distracting if you’re a diehard purist, for Joe Hisaishi’s actual themes for the score itself are unaltered. That said, I will say that I prefer the rescoring of Castle in the Sky to Kiki‘s, if mainly because it was done by Joe Hisaishi himself, for some musical moments, like strings plucking as Kiki goes downstairs to use the restroom seem more like an afterthought. There’s also a hinting of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in one scene, mainly for comical effect, which feels a bit out of place, but to call it “atrocious” would be too harsh.  On the other hand, some of the musical additions, like a “techno beat” applied to the cue where Kiki and Tombo take their memorable bike ride across town provide more punch to the excitement of that very scene, and the new theme created for Ursula (heard when we first meet her and when she and Kiki settle down) is lovely in its own right.

More controversial in the musical changes was in the displacing of the J-Pop style opening and ending theme songs as delivered by Yumi Arai. However, these were done because Disney was unable to get the rights to use them in their version (and there is also the issue that this would be lost on American audiences). Having said that, there isn’t anything remotely bad about the songs that substitute the originals, “Soaring” and “I’m Gonna Fly”, as delivered by the lovely voice of Sydney Forest. In fact, both are quite catchy and remain in one’s ear long after the credits roll. (They inspired this writer to purchase the album containing the songs in question.)

It should be noted that whatever fans feel about these musical alterations, none of them were done without the permission of Studio Ghibli.

Where voice casts are concerned, it really is hard for me to say which version is better or worse; both the Disney and Streamline dubs have their share of good performances, although some in the newer version do ring on me a bit better than the old one (but that may just be because I grew up on this dub).

KIKI (Kirsten Dunst, Disney dub; Lisa Michelson, Streamline dub) — Opinions of the performance of the lead character in Disney’s version has been widely mixed — an atmosphere not uncommon with other reviews concerning the performances of the protagonists in other Disney-Ghibli dub. Several critics, like Ken Eisner of Variety found her “buoyantly believable”, and Isaac J. Sher of Ex.org echoed “Each line is clearly spoken, the essence of the character coming through wonderfully with each word.” Others, however, like The Ghibli Blog, complained that she was “poorly miscast” and LeApprenti stated her performance as “anemic” at best, adding that she sounded like a “fish out of water.” This writer seriously wonders what those people were thinking, as there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Dunst’s performance in his eyes. Her affection for the character is obvious from the moment she utters her first word to the closing monologue, delivering an infectiously cute and lively exuberance which is perfect for the character. It may also surprise you to discover that she was roughly around thirteen (Kiki’s age) at the time she recorded the part (she even nicknames herself Kiki). She even handles Kiki’s sour mood swings, happy moments, and downcast periods in a way that connects to viewers; one cannot help but laugh along with her when she does, and likewise, feel her plight when she loses her powers midway through the film.
For Streamline’s version, the voice actress behind Kiki is, coincidentally, the same one who plays Satsuki in the old dub of My Neighbor Totoro. Surprisingly, her tone is about on par with Dunst, displaying the same energy and enthusiasm; only at times does her voice sound a tad like her previous Ghibli role, but overall she sounds a bit lower. Both are equally charming, but I think I like Dunst just a bit more.

JIJI (Phil Hartman, Disney dub; Kerrigan Mahan, Streamline dub) — Ah, the most controversial casting choice of the Disney dub. Like Dunst, opinions were wildly divided on Hartman’s distinctively more nasally and smarmy Jiji. Ken Eisner of Variety found him “unfailingly amusing and often downright hilarious”, but others, notably hardcore purists winced through every second of his performance, declaring loudly that it is a desecration of a character who was voiced by a female in the Japanese version, especially one that wasn’t so chatty. Love or hate it, Hartman’s role of Jiji was his last role ever; he died shortly after completing work on the dub, and there’s a “dedication” card to him just before the credits roll. Personally, I really dig Hartman’s voice work here. He gets to do quite a bit of adlibbing, providing some sarcastic comments “Smooth, very smooth. You definitely know how to make a good first impression” or droll remarks, “This isn’t dust on the floor, it’s flour; if you wake up tomorrow and find a white cat, it’s me.” All of his lines are pricelessly hysterical, and never fail to leave me in stitches. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine anyone else other than Hartman as this cat; different though he may be from his Japanese counterpart, he simply is the highlight of the show. (This is a trend that I often find with Disney-Ghibli dubs; one actor being so good that he/she practically owns the whole movie; not that I mind, though.)
For the Streamline dub, Kerrigan Mahan takes on the role of Jiji. (Yes, it’s also a male role in this older dub.) His tone is obviously less sarcastic and more lighter… but at the same time, he lacks Hartman’s comic timing and delightful humor. There’s nothing wrong with the performance; he sounds appropriately genial and friendly… yet there’s something about it that doesn’t really catch me the same way as Hartman did. It is a fairly good performance, though.

TOMBO (Matthew Lawrence, Disney dub; Eddie Frierson, Streamline dub) — For the role of the nerdy but nice teenager who gradually wins Kiki over after an embarrassing incident, Disney cast Matthew Lawrence. It is an excellent performance all around, his voice is endearingly dorky and he obviously relishes this character. Even at the climactic finale where Tombo gets into serious trouble on a dirigible, it’s hard not to notice how much fun he is having with the role.
You may be surprised to discover that the voice for Tombo in Streamline’s version is also one who plays a minor supporting role in the current dub–one Eddie Frierson, for instance. So how does he fare? Well, I’m a bit mixed. While his actual performance isn’t bad, his voice doesn’t have the same “dorky” teenage quality. In fact, it sounded too nasally. He does tone it down on the beach scene with Kiki, but even then he comes across as somewhat stilted. All in all, Frierson’s take on the character is admirable and has the right tone, but Lawrence just edges him out.

OSONO (Tress MacNeille, Disney dub; Alexandra Kenworthy, Streamline dub) — Consider Miss MacNeille lucky. This was her first role in a Disney-Ghibli production, and she got to be in all of them. Yet this kindly, pregnant baker who adopts Kiki and helps her like a real mother would is notable for another reason: this is a terrific part for her. From hearing her voice, you wouldn’t even know that this is the same woman who did characters like Chip, Babs Bunny, Wakko, or countless others. It really is that natural and charming. In fact, this is one of my favorite roles from MacNeille in a Ghibli dub.
Alexandra Kenworthy, who previously performed as Mrs. Kusakabe in Streamline’s Totoro, gets to play this character in the older dub. Vocally, her tone is different from MacNeille’s (a bit lower), but she still plays the character pretty much the same way. Both she and MacNeille tie.

URSULA (Janeane Garofolo, Disney dub; Edie Mirman, Streamline dub) — While I will never compare the performances of the English casts for any dub I review to their Japanese counterparts, I will mention that in the original version, this character is played by the same actress who does Kiki. However, for both Streamline and Disney’s dub, it was decided to go in a different direction. The latter casts Janeane Garofolo to play what some may see as Kiki’s more experienced alter ego; a friendly painter, who, like Kiki, struggled to find her own inspiration before realizing the values of importance. Garofolo has the sort of voice which matches the character (somewhat nasal, but lower-toned enough to be “older-teenager” quality), with a bit of an edge that adds to her charm. What really sells her performance is her chemistry with Dunst; she sounds very believable and natural throughout, as if she really is the sort of real-life best friend anyone would ever want to have.
In the former dub, this role goes to Edie Mirman, who, according to the credits on CrystalAcid, never has her name mentioned. Her voice is less nasally than Garofolo’s, but the performance is pretty much on par, sounding very natural and expressive… although she does sound less “teenagish” too. Still a fine job overall.

MADAME (Debbie Reynolds, Disney dub; Melanie MacQueen, Streamline dub) — No stranger to voice acting, having done the title character in Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web, Debbie gets to have her first (and so far) only performance as this kindly old woman whose delicacies do not impress her snobby granddaughter, yet rewards Kiki’s helpfulness by presenting her with a tearjerkingly heartwarming surprise. She is spot-on in the role, having just the sort of warmth and tender nature that anyone would expect a character like Madame. A very nice performance all around.
I’m a bit more iffy about Melanie MacQueen’s take, though. Acting-wise, she’s solid and delivers the same warm nature and tenderness… but there’s something about her voice that doesn’t really click with me. Compared to Reynolds, she sounds a bit more “artificial”, like a younger woman putting on an elderly woman’s voice, and as such, she sounds less natural. Not that she does a bad job, but I think I liked Debbie a bit more for this part.

BARSA (Edie McClurg, Disney dub; Edie Mirman, Streamline dub) — The housemaid of the aforementioned old woman, who bears a strange resemblance to Dola from Castle in the Sky, is a highly energetic, and sometimes funny (in a gentle way) soul, every bit as warm as her mistress. Vocal veteran Edie McClurg speaks for the character in the Disney dub, and she is spot-on throughout; her voice is both very natural and she sounds like she’s enjoying herself, just like everyone else in Disney’s dub.
Another Edie plays the character in the older dub, and sadly, this is one of the least successful performances in the older dub. Her energy is fine, but the voice isn’t as natural-sounding, coming across as somewhat thin in tone and consequently artificial. I like her better as Ursula.

KET (Pamela Seagall, Disney dub; Lara Cody, Streamline dub) — Surprisingly, Disney’s dub does not cast an actual boy in this small part of the little youth who is sent a stuffed cat for his birthday (Jiji reluctantly stands-in when Kiki accidentally loses the genuine article). Instead, the role goes to Pamela Segall. There is a bit of a nasally quality in her performance, but she manages to cover it up fairly well enough to convince you that it’s not a woman pretending to be a boy… although since his part is so small, it’s really difficult to evaluate it as a whole. She does do a good job at making him sound childish though.
Streamline’s dub, Lara Cody, is on par with Seagall, sounding similarly childish and youthful. Her first Ghibli performance was Sheeta in the older dub of Laputa, which was a gratingly bad effort all around (and no match for Disney’s version), but she sounded pretty good in Totoro, and she manages herself fairly well here too. Either because she was better directed or it isn’t so gratingly noticeable, I had no qualms with her in this dub.

KIKI’S PARENTS (Kath Soucie and Jeff Bennett, Disney dub; Barbara Goodson and John Dantona, Streamline dub) — We only meet these two characters at the beginning at the movie and don’t show up again until the last scene, and as such, their performances are more difficult to evaluate. Soucie and Bennett are very well cast and deliver their lines just as you’d expect for a loving mother and father (the scene where Kiki is lifted into the air is handled beautifully).

Barbara Goodson was previously Pazu in the Streamline-distributed Laputa, but compared to that robotic-sounding performance, she sounds considerably better here, very much like how a mother would talk. As for John Dantona, he sounds less relaxed than Bennett, although what I heard of him sounded fine.

SENIOR WITCH (Debi Derryberry, Disney dub; Wendee Lee, Streamline dub) — Kiki meets this character just after the opening credits; Disney’s version casts Derryberry, while Streamline casts Lee. Both play their characters the same; high pitch, snobbish attitudes, and haughty delivery. Great job, both parts.

Other minor roles in the Disney dub include John Hostetter as the captain of the dirigible Spirit of Freedom, who doesn’t have much lines but is nonetheless very fitting and appropriate for the character, John DeMita as the newscaster who comments on Kiki rushing to Tombo’s rescue (another nice performance), Sherry Lynn as Madame’s bratty granddaughter (her display of disdain is impeccably handled), Matt Miller as a traffic cop (grating but effective), and several other roles filled in by Scott Menville, Fay Dewitt, and Julia DeMita. All of them are frequent names who tend to show up in dubs cast by Jack Fletcher. Streamline’s incidental cast includes many of their regulars such as Greg Snegoff (who, like Totoro, does the direction and script adaptation for this dub of Kiki), Mike Reynolds, and Steve Kramer.

Since I only have had access to the clips of Streamline’s dub, I cannot comment on how the translation compares to Disney’s. However, the flow of the dialogue sounded fine to me, if somewhat less smooth and stilted at times. I will say that Disney’s version is very well written, each line sounding fluent and natural, never missing a beat in tone with the gentle nature of the story. There’s a bit of an amusing backdrop here: scriptwriters John Semper and Jack Fletcher were given Greg Snegoff’s ADR script by Tokuma, who thought it was a literal translation. Comparing the subtitle (sorry, dubtitle) tracks, I did notice a few radical changes (for example, Kiki is offered “hot chocolate” as opposed to “coffee”), but most of it is just for natural flow and for lipflap purposes (which, by the way, is impeccably done; a pleasing trait of Disney’s Ghibli dubs), and none of them really alter the original source material greatly. Still, many have criticized the extra throwaway lines that fill in some previously silent scenes. Most of these are from Hartman’s Jiji, who, as mentioned, improvised most, if not all, of his dialogue. Ultimately, however, it is not these added-in and/or altered lines that affect the dub, but rather how the viewer chooses to take them that counts. And personally, I feel that these extra lines expand on the movie, actually making it more entertaining and certainly funnier.

Probably the only change I’d call into question is the addition of a line at the end of the film spoken by Jiji; according to the Japanese script, the idea is that Kiki loses her ability to talk with Jiji even at the end of the film (which Streamline’s version apparently preserves). This additional line does diminish the symbolism, but not dramatically so as to bring down the dub as a whole (it only lasts for one second out of the whole 105 minutes).

It seems as though Disney’s dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service has garnered more detractors in recent years, most of which compare it unfavorably to other Disney-Ghibli dubs. Which is quite surprising, because, even after hearing bits and pieces of the Japanese version, I have to say that Disney’s version has aged very well since its debut.  It continues to entertain me no matter how many times I listen to it. The vocal cast is top-notch, the script entertaining and funny, and the success of this dub introduced many people to Miyazaki’s work.

As for Streamline’s dub, I can attest to liking a lot of what I heard, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it surpasses Disney’s dub; it’s only a different interpretation of a great story. While it may be a bit more faithful, I feel that it may not be fair to either side to say that I prefer one dub and loathe the latter, especially since they’re both of charming quality. As with Totoro, I’d say that this old dub ties with Disney’s version; discrepancies aside, they’re both very likeable and endearing dubs.

WARNING: Disney has recently re-released the film on DVD in 2010 and has made modifications to this dub. A good portion of Jiji’s lines are gone (including the one added in for the end), and the songs by Sydney Forest are also reverted back to the Japanese originals. Some of these changes I can approve of, as I wasn’t all that fond of the musical alterations in Kiki as I was in Laputa‘s.  On the flip side, as far as Hartman is concerned, aside from the controversial last line, his other one-liners are too priceless to miss, and it’s really hard to imagine the dub without them.  The same is true for the Sydney Forest songs.  Of course, purists will not care, as these changes do bring Kiki closer in tone to the Japanese version (and will probably watch the latter version anyway), but does that make this newest edition an improvement?  Speaking as someone who likes Disney’s dub as it was, I can say yes and no.  It is interesting to compare and contrast the two different versions, but that doesn’t mean it’s better or worse; just, well, different.  Of course, if you can’t stand the thought of Disney’s version of Kiki being edited to suit whatever purist needs were necessary, then you might want to hold onto your copy of the 1998 VHS or the 2003 DVD.  Another reason to be cautious of the 2010 edition is that the final sound mix is disappointingly terrible; nearly half of the dialogue in the new edition sounds very filtered, as if the characters are talking into a fan; as such, they sound nowhere nearly as clean as in the previous releases.  To me, that ultimately seals the superiority of the 2003 DVD and 1998 VHS editions.

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Author: Jon Turner

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Comments

  • http://animeenglishdubreviews.blogspot.com/ Jon Turner

    I find it interesting that this movie, like “Totoro” and “Castle in the Sky” was also dubbed by Streamline; the older dub of this movie is pretty good, about on par with “Totoro”; too bad I can’t say the same for “Laputa”‘s–if I want to see that movie in English, I’d rather see Disney’s dub.

  • Terry Zumwalde

    I like the 2003 version of KiKi’s Delivery Service better. It has both the Disney added music and JiJi’s added comments. The ending to me seems more positive as it makes one feel KiKi got her power back to talk to her cat and why not as a lot of people do talk to their cats. Not to mention it includes the option to watch the DVD in the original japanese version if one wishes to. I played this DVD for my 2 year old grandson and he just loved the movie being very enchanted with the cat and the music. Then a few days ago I bought the new 2010 version for my daughter to have one of her own to play for him and when it came to the part where (in the english version) Kiki was flying on her broom over the country side on her way to the city, the japanese song came on and suddenly my grandson ran to find the remote to change the music because it wasn’t the song he was use to. I do not think he cares for the 2010 version also. I’m not a purist so to me the changes Disney originally made enhanced the story experience of KiKi’s Delivery Service. I’m hoping Disney will re release it on Blu Ray with the option to watch it in their 2003 version.

  • Nees

    I recently bought the 2010 version of Kiki’s Delivery Service and noticed the odd sound quality. Checking out the Amazon website’s reviews, I noticed only one other person comment on it. They had a reply saying that their version was probably a Chinese bootleg. I’d rather believe that than the idea that Disney actually allowed the sound quality to be that poor. Do you know for certain that your 2010 edition is the official release? Mine was a gift bought online, so I could believe that its a bootleg, but if thats not the case I have a very disappointed letter to write to Disney :c