Frank Turtletaub’s review published on Letterboxd:
I was waiting for my perfect Ghibli film. I have seen Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl's Moving Castle in the last few weeks and while most of them were incredible they weren't quite up to what I wanted with a few tweaks here and there. Kiki's Delivery Service, however, finishes first.
First off, it follows a similar plot beat to Totoro where the plot (while more progressive) is more just beats and neutral points along a journey that don't have overly obvious emotional connotations to them--it's more about just watching Kiki learn and interact with them. She is a very likeable character, in part because of how incredibly emotional she is but bottled up all of her problems are. We stereotype our teenage years (particularly those of teenage girls) as being loud and over emotional. The truth is that many people are quiet and process things slowly during their adolescence, outside of a few major outbursts. Kiki is frequently faced with frustration, sadness, and anger and most of the time she doesn't react with anger but silent defeat. How she learns to deal with them is part of her independence.
Lastly, the film has a couple overarching, much more esoteric themes--there is a bit of culture clash here at the beginning that Kiki must learn to overcome. Most of the people in the village are not used to witches and mostly gawk or ignore her. This is only allowed through the impressive immersion of magic realism--a world where witches are known and appreciated, but still somewhat rare.
As time goes on though, we eventually learn that running a delivery service is draining Kiki's happiness. The drudgery of labor eventually starts taking the fun out of flying, something she truly loved. As she is slowly entered into the workforce, she loses her powers. This dichotomy goes to show how often work entirely for the purpose of money can destroy someone's passion, and kill their love for it. It's only until Kiki finds outside inspiration and human connection in the world that she can regain her ability imagination and ability to fly.
Kiki's story is relatable to a surprising range of people despite being 13. Even people who are lost and trying to find a community or a career that suits them well into their thirties can find Kiki's struggle very personal. It's about growing up, and Kiki just has to do it at a much younger age. However, similar to Howl's Moving Castle--when we grow up we can retain some of our childlike wonder but some things will permanently change. Kiki may love flying again, but she will likely never hear Jiji's voice ever again. Esoterically happy. Tragically beautiful. But ultimately, happy.