Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Mary Norton, Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
Beneath the floorboards of a sprawling mansion set in a magical, overgrown garden in the suburbs of Tokyo, tiny 14-year-old Arrietty lives with her equally tiny parents. The house is occupied by two old ladies, who are absolutely unaware of the existence of their miniature tenants.
Arrietty and her family live by “borrowing”. Everything they have, they borrow or make from the things they have borrowed. Essentials like cooking gas, water and food. Tables, chairs, cooking utensils. And treats – a sugar cube here, a scrap of material there. But only a little each time, so the ladies do not notice.
A 12-year-old boy, Sho, moves in the mansion while he waits for urgent medical treatment in the city. Arrietty’s parents have always warned her: “Never let humans see you.” Once seen, little people always have to move on. But the adventurous Arrietty doesn’t listen, and Sho discovers her.
The two begin to confide in each other and, before long, a friendship begins to blossom…
Arrietty was released in the UK on July 29, 2011 and will be released in the US February 17, 2012. The film currently has a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 20 reviews.
Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers would seem to be perfect inspiration for a Studio Ghibli adaptation. It has a strong, young female lead, in the tradition of Nausicaa, Chihiro and Satsuki, and it concerns itself with the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane world, a key theme in almost all of the studio’s films thus far.
So it will perhaps come as no surprise that Arrietty is a wonderful film, from the opening that recalls Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, with a youngster arriving somewhere new, unaware of the adventures to come, to the ending that is both heartwarming and sad.
The film focuses on the friendship between the titular Arrietty, a diminutive human — a Borrower — who lives with her family under the floorboards of a country house, and Sho, the human boy who comes to stay at the house with his aunt as he waits for heart surgery. The pair struggle to form a connection even as the universe seems to conspire against them; Arrietty’s mother is terrified of humans, her father has a strict set of rules regarding interaction with them, Sho’s housekeeper wants to have them captured or exterminated, and Sho himself may not have much longer to live.
It all seems fatalistic, but it never becomes oppressive and doom-laden because Ghibli films tend to acknowledge that such complexities are just part of life, and interesting stories are the natural result of people getting on with it and dealing with them. Arrietty would be a much lesser film if it had the superficial emotional content of most Western animation.
As with all of the studio’s films — even the lesser works like Tales From Earthsea — Arrietty looks and sounds wonderful, showing once again that there is a place for traditional animation in a medium dominated by Pixar and its imitators.
As befits a film set in the world of tiny people living in the small spaces of the world, there is an astonishing attention to detail and clever sound design — everything outside Arrietty’s home sounds louder and closer than it should do — both of which transform the comfortable and familiar surroundings of a family home into a kind of mythic underworld as epic and perilous as anything from The Lord of the Rings; never has a simple crow seemed so terrifying, and the early sequences of Arrietty and her father exploring the nooks and crannies of Sho’s house are as evocative as any dungeon crawling scene from an Indiana Jones film.
I can’t be the only one to notice that Hayao Miyazaki is not getting any younger, and to worry about a future for the medium of production line cgi animation and ill-judged celebrity voice acting. Yoshifumi Kondo was to have been the successor and the strength of Whisper of the Heart only confirmed his suitability, before his early death put the matter in doubt once more.
Arrietty is every bit as strong as Kondo’s film, and it would seem that Ghibli’s future is in safe hands with talent like Hiromasa Yonebayashi on the rise. Technically brilliant and emotionally powerful, Arrietty is a beautiful film, the kind of trumph of the form that Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar can only hope to produce.
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don’t get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn’t hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.