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Sho, a frail 12 year-old boy, comes to a secluded house with a large garden in order to recuperate. In the garden, he glimpses a tiny girl, a few centimetres tall. She is Arrietty, one of a race called the Borrowers, whose family live in the house's hidden spaces and “borrow” human things to survive. Arrietty is taken by her father, Pod, on her first borrowing expedition. At first, she's thrilled, but she's shocked when she enters Sho's room and finds the giant watching her…
Arrietty, which has been released to DVD and Blu-ray by Studio Canal, is Studio Ghibli's version of The Borrowers, the 1951 British children's novel by Mary Norton. The book was set in England; the film, by first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, transposes the tale to present-day Japan. Both book and film are about a boy meeting a tiny girl; or, from the reverse perspective, about a girl meeting a giant boy.
This double perspective at the story's heart is a problem whenever The Borrowers is filmed in live-action, as it has been many times (most recently as a BBC special in December 2011). No matter how good the effects are, a live-action Borrowers must switch between one group of actors in an ordinary setting, and another group of actors performing against greenscreen and oversized studio sets. The constant switching works against the story, which needs you to believe the big and small people all live in one world.
With animation, though, it's no problem to have little meeting big; and Arrietty is a very intimate film. It has only six real characters – three humans, three insect-sized Borrowers – plus a seventh turning up midway. (There's also a cat, which plays an important role at the end.) There are three locations; the human house, the borrowers' house, and a sprawling garden. Arrietty's last half hour, in which characters are always creeping up and downstairs, in and out of rooms, trying not to alert each other, sometimes feels more like a play than a film.
The main viewpoint is that of the titular tiny girl, Arrietty. A feisty Ghibli teen, she's bold and confident, donning a bright red dress to go adventuring. She takes after her taciturn but kind father Pod, watching awed as he scales the vast walls and furniture of the human world. Pod takes the 13 year-old on her first “borrowing” expedition – the family relies on materials discarded by the humans. Immediately, we see the borrowers' lifestyle in practice. Arrietty and Pod mountaineer up the crevices of the human house, using nails as footholds and a thread pulley as an elevator.
Then, disaster. Arrietty is seen by a human boy, Sho, who's perhaps the first boy she's ever met. The calm giant face tells her there's nothing to fear. The experience is sexual, at least for Arrietty. The tick of a clock turns into a beating heart when she realises she's on view, and she cowers behind a piece of tissue, as if caught naked. She reacts like a prickly adolescent, shocked, outraged, and secretly fascinated. The boy, who's a year or two younger, has no such embarrassment. He just wants this wonderful girl to be his friend, and to keep her safe.
The contrasts between the pair are explored through the film, often with great delicacy. In a later encounter, Arrietty stands on a windowsill. We know her as an angry and determined teen, but Sho just sees her shadow through a leaf, like a storybook cut-out or a Tinker Bell stage effect. Such cross-currents keep the film interesting on repeat views. Scenes that at first seem redundant or preachy work to deepen the title character, as Arrietty grows through contact with her peers, big and small.
The environment is half wild, half domestic. Outdoors there are threats and predators; home space is precious, even to the restless, inquisitive Arrietty. Her family may “borrow” materials, but they still have to shape, craft and mend their living quarters. Postage stamps become paintings; a flowerpot forms a fireplace; Arrietty brings in flowers and turns her bedroom into a dense garden. Home space isn't something to be bought and assembled. It takes effort and vision to create, for the humans as well as the Borrowers. Much of the film revolves around a human-made doll's house, which is both a wonderful artwork and an effort by the humans to contact the little people.
Arrietty's problem is its anti-climax, which is surprising given its earlier scenes had suspense and excitement. During Arrietty's first night-raid, for example, there's a tremendous audio moment when the girl takes her first step into human territory and is surrounded by magnified creaks and gurgles, like an army of invisible monsters. Later there's a funny-scary scene involving a hysterical crow, which has the best animation in the film.
And yet the last act doesn't hold the attention. It puts the characters into peril, if a perversely small peril by Hollywood standards. In Ghibli's My Neighbor Totoro, such a “small” climax worked beautifully; here, it's flat. We see the challenge is great for the protagonists, and it's enjoyable to watch them work together; but it's not exciting, which is perverse. Ghibli's – and specifically Miyazaki's – recent films have been criticised for their puzzling anti-climaxes. Arrietty's, though, is especially strange, because there are obvious ways that it could have been exciting.
But the film is still lovely, especially in the Blu-ray which lets you feel images like the sun shining through a single leaf. The colour palette in Arrietty's night adventure is potently simple, reds and pinks set against dark blue. The character animation comes a poor second to the staging, but the artists have fun with an excitable human maid who resembles a squat goblin, brimming with low cunning. Arrietty's most distinctive element is its Celtic-flavoured score by the French singer/harpist Cécile Corbel and her collaborators, sounding somewhere between Clannad and the Corrs.
All editions of the film include an excellent dub track on which the accents are proudly British. Arrietty isn't voice-driven – many of its key moments are wordless – but the dub cast do fine work, especially Mark Strong as Arrietty's dad, whose character sounds as solid and enduring as bedrock. A familiar British story, dubbed with British accents, and transposed to Japan, all makes for a delightfully odd mishmash. Even with occasional reminders of the setting, like a tanuki racoon-dog appearing in the garden, it's easy to forget this is meant to be Japan.
Extras are available on the Blu-ray Double Play and Collector's Editions of Arrietty, but not on the single DVD edition. Most of the dub cast appear in the extras, speaking for about five minutes each. Geraldine McEwan, who voices the housemaid Haru, reveals she read the original Borrowers on the long-ago children's series Jackanory! There's no interview for musician Cécile Corbel, but she and her team are seen in a music video, performing the main Arrietty theme (as heard on the end credits).
The main extras, though, are the lengthy subbed Japanese interviews. One is with Arrietty's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (40 minutes). The other is with co-writer Hayao Miyazaki, who chose the book and director (23 minutes). Although the Miyazaki interview comes first on the menu, it's better to start with Yonebayashi, as Miyazaki responds to him in his talk. Yonebayashi is more hesitant, but has plenty to say about his Ghibli career and his approach to Arrietty. (His storyboards are available as a viewing option on the film.)
It's Miyazaki, though, who's the highlight. Fans know his curmudgeonly reputation, and he plays to that hilariously. He blithely insults Yonebayashi (“He never had ambition”), criticises the younger generation (“They're not curious”), and has a stark warning for Japanese animators: things will get harder…
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A British children's classic is fascinatingly reworked as an elegant character drama.
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