Studio Ghibli borrows from English literature so often (Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll) that this animated take on Mary Norton’s children’s classic The Borrowers is a no-brainer.
The set-up, in which sickly schoolboy Shô discovers fantasy creatures in his new home, revisits territory long mined by Ghibli’s creative guru (and Arrietty co-screenwriter) Hayao Miyazaki, while Norton’s diminutive family of household scavengers have already been adapted into a BBC mini-series and a Hollywood comedy.
What’s remarkable, then, is how fresh this is. Miyazaki hands directorial duties to long-term animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who focuses firmly on the eponymous teen heroine, a novice Borrower beguiled by the ‘human beans’, inverting traditional Ghibli logic. Where Miyazaki gazes out upon a strange new universe, Arrietty looks in and finds everyday bric-a-brac just as wondrous.
The Borrowers are endlessly resourceful, at once artists who turn postage stamps into posters, and microscopic mountaineers who forge grappling hooks from earrings.
The accompanying story charms, a bucolic jaunt that barely breaks stride even during set-pieces involving a predatory crow or a suspicious housekeeper.
That said, Yonebayashi’s child-like delight is underscored with a pessimistic parable about the current financial crisis. The film’s biggest (off-screen) villain is the divorcee mother who abandons Shô to travel on business, whereas Arrietty’s parents are Daily Mail-friendly hunter/gatherer and homemaker.
But this is Ghibli, so it’s actually more of a gentle elegy for the endangered lifestyle of ‘little people’ everywhere – and as moving as anything this great studio has produced.
Released in Japanese and dubbed formats, Arrietty’s craft and charm will invite universal acclaim.