When I first heard about there being a live action version of Kiki's Delivery Service in the works, I (as well as my fellow Kotaku authors ) were more than a bit sceptical about it. However, after seeing it, I am happy to report that it is a perfectly watchable film that stands apart from its world-famous counterpart.
Good -- The Environment
One of the things Kiki's Delivery Service does well is in building a setting. Kiki's home village is built into the sides of a craggy canyon and feels like a place cut away from the modern world just by its remote location. The island she settles on is beautiful as well, with its pseudo-European architecture and scenic vistas of the ocean. As so much of the movie involves Kiki flying from place to place, you are able to enjoy the view to its fullest.
Good -- Not a Rehash
When most people think of Kiki's Delivery Service, they undoubtedly think of Studio's Ghibli's 1989 classic of the same name. However, the live action Kiki's Delivery Service is not based on this famous anime, but rather on the original novel.
So while Kiki's Delivery Service shares the general plot and characters of the anime classic, they are very different films. From the moment Kiki arrives in the city, almost nothing is similar. Thus, for those of us who have seen the Ghibli movie, most of the events in the movie are completely different, but still feel like adventures Kiki would have. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is in the kind of story each movie tells.
Mixed -- A Common Coming of Age Story
The Ghibli film is a coming of age story about a girl learning to deal with the new emotions inside of her as she goes through puberty. The live action film is also a coming of age story, but of a different sort.
Over the course of the film, Kiki learns that not everyone is a good and decent person -- many people treat her like a dog with an amazing new trick while others treat her like a walking fix-it-all. But worst of all is the girl who uses Kiki (and people's ignorance of magic) as a tool to get revenge on those who she feels have wronged her.
Thus Kiki is bombarded by the simple truth that people fear what they do not understand. Those that were once her clients turn on her because of their prejudice and irrational fear; and Kiki has to learn to deal with what it is like to be on the receiving end of these negative emotions. Of course, it all comes to a head when she is begged to do something only she and her magic can do and she thus wins over everyone in the process.
The film tells the story well enough, but unfortunately, it is far from being an original plot. It's basically the story of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer when you get down to it.
Mixed -- The Cast
The cast is another area where Kiki's Delivery Service has its ups and downs. Kiki, 16-year-old Fuka Koshiba, acts well enough, but in no way looks 13. Thus the portrayal of Kiki's innocence clashing against the harsh realities of the adult world falls a bit flat. Other than that, rather than kind and motherly, Machiko Ono's Osono seems insincere with every word and gesture. I wondered while watching if the audience was supposed to feel that she was secretly evil.
On the other hand, 16-year old Ryohei Hirota is superb in the role of Tombo. Everything he says and does, down to the smallest movement, speaks volumes about his character -- and it is rare today to find a character that is much more about actions than words. So, while the movie may be about Kiki, it's Tombo that steals the show, especially during the climax.
Bad -- The VFX
Perhaps the biggest strike against Kiki's Delivery Service is that it was released in a time after Harry Potter. For better or worse, Harry Potter basically defined flying on a broomstick for modern audiences -- riding one is fast and exciting. In other words, sitting on a stick hanging from a ceiling in front of a green screen doesn't quite cut it anymore. And let's be frank here, it has been a long time since I have seen such obvious green screen effects in a major motion picture.
The other major special effects in the movie are Kiki's cat Jiji and a family of hippopotamuses which are done exclusively in CG. They look horrid and fake beyond belief. In the case of the talking cat, going full CG is understandable as real cats aren't exactly well-known for being easy to train. But the hippos do nothing active in the movie -- they just sit there. A simple rubber-skinned animatronic would have worked just as well and looked scores better.
Kiki's Delivery Service is an average family movie. It hits all the notes you're used to from a story of this type and does them well enough to keep you invested. The best thing about it is how unlike the Ghibli movie it is; so it never feels like a cheap cash-in on its famous predecessor. If you are a fan of family films or just want to see another take on an iconic story, be sure to give it a watch.
Kiki's Delivery Service was released in Japan on 1 March 2014. There is currently no word on an international release.