Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting 1989 anime “Kiki’s Delivery Service” becomes a bulky package in the hands of onetime J-horror master Takashi Shimizu (“The Grudge”), who drains all the magic from his live-action depiction of a young witch’s internship in the real world. Although the film may initially ride the coattails of its popular predecessor, it fails to deliver even for those who haven’t seen Miyazaki’s version, its charmless heroine, leaden storytelling and dime-store production values unlikely to bewitch anyone except tiny tots. With Hong Kong’s Edko Films and a Beijing company co-presenting, the pic may get lucky in the mainland market, starved as ever for family entertainment.
The inspiration for both Miyazaki’s and Shimizu’s features came from Eiko Kadono’s 1985 children’s novel of the same title. Following the success of the anime, Kadono wrote five more volumes from 1993-2009, charting the heroine’s passage into womanhood. The screenplay by Shimizu and Satoko Okudera stitches together new plots from Kadono’s later books (mostly from the second volume, “Kiki and Her New Magic”), and it retains the formless, episodic nature of the author’s writing — a problem Miyazaki avoided by concentrating on Kiki’s coming of age, expressed in strong dramatic terms.
The film begins with Kokiri (Rie Miyazawa), sending her tween daughter, Kiki (Fuka Koshiba), off to live among mortals for a year as part of her apprenticeship. Taking Jiji the talking cat (voiced by Minako Kotobuki) with her as a companion, Kiki heads for the seaside town of Korico and crash-lands in a zoo, where zookeeper Nazuru (Yo Yoshida) takes an immediate disliking to her; you can’t really blame him, as she’s bumbling, unkempt and excessively apologetic. The only person who doesn’t find her irritating is O-sono (Machiko Ono), the pregnant wife of baker Fukuo (Hiroshi Yamamoto). Not only does she offer Kiki an attic in which to stay, but she also advises her to turn her ability to fly into a courier business.
Kiki’s experience is essentially that of child from a charmed but lonely background, finding her feet in a new environment through the various ties she builds with people. Kokiri emphasizes how, for centuries, witches survived by using magic to benefit humankind, but there are not enough scenes that convey Kiki’s joy and curiosity in mingling with others. More often, she meekly suffers their exploitation and criticism, until she ends up traumatized and dysfunctional; the film’s tone takes a mopey turn, ultimately playing out like a catty Japanese manga on school bullying. Some of the most unpleasant scenes involve aviation nerd Tombo (Ryohei Hirota), whose jealousy of Kiki’s innate levitation skills prompts some obnoxious, sexist behavior. Even though they gradually reconcile, theirs is a wishy-washy amity that lacks the starry-eyed sweetness of Tombo’s crush on Kiki in the anime.
One would think that after making 16 horror-thrillers and presiding over eight spinoffs of “The Grudge,” Shimizu could at least conjure some otherworldly atmospherics and put his own stamp on the material. Yet his dramatic methods here are so stiff and square that the result feels as though it could have been made by any number of workmanlike TV directors. With flat pacing from beginning to end, the climax of Kiki trawling a baby hippo across a storm-tossed sea winds up being an inadvertent metaphor for how draggy the whole film is.
Awkwardly cast as a character who’s 13 in Kadono’s first book and in the anime, 17-year-old TV newcomer Koshiba is simply too old to be cute, and has no charisma or quirkiness to make up for it. It doesn’t help that she’s doomed to wear stereotypical witch fashions; her flappy black dress makes her look dowdier than ever, though d.p. Sohei Tanigawa’s oddly positioned camera angles at times seem a bit too focused on the way her thighs grip her broomstick. At 18, Hirata is likewise too old and doesn’t exude the requisite boyish air. The sizable cast leaves little impression, with the exception of Asano Tadanobu, who looks as if he’s been marooned from a different film in his cameo as a desert-island castaway.
Kiki may not play Quidditch, but there’s still plenty of novelty potential in the flying scenes; alas, these never convey the elation of flying at a great speed and height. Aerial shots are often used to denote Kiki’s perspective from the skies; even when she is shown in mid-air, however, the green-screen background is glaringly obvious. In fact, visual effects are uncharacteristically low-end for a Japanese production; even key CG figures, like Jiji and Maruko the hippo, look as fake as clockwork toys.
The production as a whole is noticeably second-rate, especially the tacky, TV-like sets and nondescript locations. Taro Iwashiro’s music is too overblown for this lighthearted tale; even the film’s visual texture lacks vibrancy.