***originally written 17 August 2011***
I’ve never read The Borrowers. Never seen the movie starring John Goodman from 1997. So I came to Arrietty, the latest film from the wonderful Studio Ghibli, with no real expectations of any kind concerning the source material. This was, to me, just the latest work from one of the most interesting and (for the most part) rewarding film-making machines in the world.
I had an idea from the outset though that Arrietty and I were going to get along. From the little I knew about the storyline, I could see how it would strike a chord with Hayao Miyazaki and co. Some of the strongest recurring themes in Studio Ghibli animations are here; the pains of growing up, lamentations on the depletion of the natural world around us, the bonds of family. Ghibli and The Borrowers really seemed like a perfect fit.
The story then, in case there are others out there who don’t know, concerns a family of three ‘little people’ who live behind the walls and in the nooks and crannies of a country home where a young boy named Sho is staying whilst he awaits a heart operation. The family unit of the little people, or Borrowers, is made up of mother Homily, father Pod and daughter Arrietty. Arrietty has reached the crossroads of young adulthood, coming up on fourteen, and so her father has started to take her out on foraging expeditions around the house for useful items for the family to ‘borrow’. But in doing so he opens her up to the dangers of the big bad world, and the threat of being discovered by the humans.
And how stunning the big bad world really is. Unsurprisingly everything looks beautiful. An embarrassment of riches for the eye, more-so than any previous Ghibli production, and that’s saying something. Ghibli has always been at its finest when relishing in the little details. By blowing the world up to vast proportions, first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and his crew have delivered the most exquisitely rendered picture of the studio’s career. From raindrops to woodlice to the tight mezzanine places between rooms, everything takes on an adventurous grandeur whilst still maintaining that Ghibli charm. All of this enhanced dramatically by the astonishing sound design which utterly convinces and, at times, will have you on tenterhooks. Sound has not had such a dramatic role in a feature film since No Country For Old Men. It doesn’t just enhance the drama, but creates it. If nothing else, Arrietty is a master-class in the art of the foley artist.
All of which is wonderful news if you just want a piece of work out to impress. Fortunately Arrietty delivers more than that. Arrietty herself is reminiscent of previous heroines from the series; young, uncertain but stalwart. And the family dynamic is refreshingly free of Hollywood ‘issues’; Arrietty admires her warm-yet-stoic father and loves her scatterbrained, ever-worrying mother. At no point would you consider this family breaking apart. Sickly ‘human bean’ Sho is a quietly intelligent boy too, touched with a strange maturity thanks to his fragile condition and not above the occasional lamentation, vocalising the environmental concerns that have haunted Ghibli productions since the beginning. Yet he remains a child enamoured by adventure and discovery. The film is at its most magical when he and Arrietty interact.
The last few years have been strange for Ghibli. After gaining a much wider audience, the pictures produced have struggled to find the balance they used to so effortlessly achieve. From the more-adult and convoluted Tales Of Earthsea to the overtly childish Ponyo, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the magic was fading. Arrietty swiftly dispels any such fears and will unite younger audiences who will get swept up in its charming adventures, and the more mature viewers who can appreciate the poignancy, the majesty, the beauty.
Whether or not it is faithful to its source material is something I couldn’t care less about. The film from the Ghibli catalogue that Arrietty most resembles is My Neighbour Totoro. Both have relatively small storylines given life by simple pleasures, both feature characters saddened by illness, both concern the meeting of two worlds in a pastoral environment, both are love letters to the natural world. My Neighbour Totoro is my favourite Studio Ghibli picture. Arrietty isn’t far behind it. An absolute joy. Thoroughly recommended.