Writer; London/Tokyo (@seven_cinemas)
Kiki's Delivery Service started life as a 1985 novel by author Kadono Eiko, but it was the '89 Studio Ghibli version that brought fame to the little witch, particularly outside of her native Japan. Since that time the book has grown into a series, however it's the Miyazaki animation that remains the most well known. Kiki is one of the most popular characters in the great director's catalogue so it was a cause for excitement when this live-action version of the story was announced, surprisingly with one of the key figures in the late 90's J-horror movement at the helm, Juon's Shimizu Takashi.

The film gets off to a positive start with the camera swooping down on the cliffside village in which Kiki is born, the candle light illumination of the little houses sets the precedent for the film's visual style. The costumes, props and settings all look suitably quaint with a pronounced vintage quality, a world of analogue radios and vinyl records, windmills and fish markets. Unfortunately the quality of the physical effects are let down by some distinctively underwhelming digital work. In 1978 you might have believed a man could fly but in 2014 you won't believe that a girl isn't hanging by strings in front of a green screen. Jiji, Kiki's ever-faithful black cat is the biggest let down, being reduced to a weightless computer graphic that lacks any magical touch; they might have been better just using a real cat.

Upon reaching her thirteenth birthday, Kiki, the daughter of a witch mother and a human father, must make the customary journey out of her hometown and spend a year living independently, finding her way in the world. Kiki sets off with her faithful friend Jiji in tow, eventually making her way to the island of Koriko where she is given a room in a bakery and promptly sets up a delivery service for the town's residents.

While film newcomer Koshiba Fuka is chirpy enough in her performance the supporting cast of characters are flat, uninspired or just plain odd. On Kiki's arrival in Koriko she lands in a zoo, meeting a strange CG Hippo that will make appearances throughout, ultimately becoming the focus of the disappointing ending. The zookeeper takes an instant dislike to Kiki and becomes furiously angry with her, and he's not the only bizarrely angry character. Tonbo, a local boy who dreams of flying, is sullen, jealous and quick to anger and a rather forced relationship doesn't develop between him and Kiki until near the end.  Even Jiji, a cutesy character in Ghibli's original Japanese version and a dry wit in the English dub, just comes across as slightly moody here, and his character and story is never fully developed. Add to this a subplot involving a horribly dull witch who has lost the ability to sing and an incident where the townsfolk turn on their resident witch a little too quickly and everything feels rather episodic.

The themes of growing up and reaching maturity, so expertly addressed in the Ghibli version are not to be found, with one meeting after another leading up to an anti-climatic ending carrying little of the depth or meaning found in the earlier film. A brief appearance by veteran actor Asano Tadanobu doesn't help and only adds to the feeling that the film isn't clear on what it's trying to say. The characters almost feel as if they've been swapped around just so this version differs from its animated counterpart.

Kiki's Delivery Service has a nice look and a likeable central performance, but a flat narrative and uninspiring supporting cast result in a film that lacks magic and fails to truly fly.

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