Did anyone see the new BBC version of the Borrowers over Christmas? I missed it but I did catch a little. It was putrid. Arrietty seemed to be some horrible little mouthy chav girl and it appeared to be that the sole reason for making it was because someone at BBC HQ said “Hey, let’s modernise The Borrowers for no good reason”. Speaking of modernising The Borrowers here’s Arrietty from Studio Ghibli. It’s set in Japan in the space year 2010 and you know what, it doesn’t detract from the original story in the slightest. Click the tiny to read the review.
So in case you don’t know the story of The Borrowers this is the basic outline. Arrietty is a teenage girl living with her parents Pod and Homily under the floor of a house owned by 2 elderly women. Why do they live under the floor? Well because they’re only 10 centimetres tall, that’s why. For little people like Arrietty they live a secretive life occasionally popping up to the home of the Human Beans (that play on words only really works with a Devonshire accent) to “borrow” various things such as a cube of sugar or some tissue. They have one very strict rule though, if they’re ever seen by a Human Bean they have to leave the house and move on. This is based on past Borrowers lives not ending well after being seen. Arrietty is a curious young lady though and manages to get herself seen by a sickly boy named Sho (In this Japanese version at least) who is staying in the home with his great Aunt whilst he awaits an operation on his heart.
Making his directorial debut here is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, not just for Studio Ghibli either. this is the first project he has ever been in charge of. Before now Yonebayashi had been a Key Animator on all the Miyazaki lead Ghibli films since Princess Mononoke. When you see this film you’ll be able to tell that he has clearly been groomed for a directorial role. Granted he would have likely been supervised heavily by Miyazaki but this is clearly his own film. The Miyazaki traits, such as flying, pigs and cute little soot creatures, are largely absent here. By largely I mean that there’s one scene where a character glides off into the distance so I guess that counts as flying. Like Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns a few years back we can see that Studio Ghibli really does allow it’s Directors a chance to forge their own style. Visually Arrietty looks just like any other Miyazaki film but seeing as Yonebayashi was a key animator on many of them that’s understandable.
Man does it look pretty. The film revels in tiny details hidden in the scenery. The artists must have had quite a bit of fun hiding human sized objects in the Borrower’s home. A plant pot used as a chimney for above the stove, staples as a ladder and a pin used as a sword are amongst the more obvious hidden items. The latter of those being a key part of Arrietty’s growth as character early on. To add to the looks the scenery is painted with so much depth of colour and sound. Ghibli films usually do revel in depicting nature in a very naturalistic way but whilst not forgetting to enthuse it with a little vibrancy. The scale of the world may be a lot smaller (to us at least) than say the world of Laputa but the richness of the scenery is not held back at all. This is one of the best looking Ghibli films so far.
One thing Yonebayashi does well that Miyazaki has always struggled/not bothered with is story pacing. This film floats along with constant forward motion. You’re always discovering something about the characters or the world they live in and there’s never a moment wasted on either filler or unnecessary dialogue. Such a relief after the some of movies we’ve had this last year. There’s a few lovely moments too such as when Arrietty rolls up a woodlouse to play with it like a ball. I guess when you’re 10 centimetres tall you make your own fun. It’s stuff like that that makes Ghibli films stand out above other animated films out there. They infuse their characters with little pieces of life that make them feel like real people. Little moments that are simple and memorable such as the Cat Bus scene in My Neighbour Totoro or Sen’s initial trepidation at the soot creatures in Spirited Away are what make a character or a scene stand out.
The soundtrack is an exceptional work too. it weaves in and out of the background during the scenes where it is most needed and hides away so as to not cause a distraction when a little more subtlety is called for. the music for the film was composed by French musician Cecile Corbel who apparently got the job after sending Miyazaki a letter telling him how much she loved their films and a copy of one of her cds. She also sings the theme tune, Arrietty’s Song, in multiple languages no less. The sound editing and foley work is also excellent in this film. A real stand-out scene is Arrietty’s first journey into the Human Beans house for her first borrowing. All the noises of the houses inhabitants echo around her like she’s suddenly walked into the worlds largest concert hall. The soundscape is pretty impressively put together making it as daunting for us as it is for the films protagonist.
Here’s Cecile Corbel, a French woman, singing the films theme tune in Japanese. She also performed the song in French, German and English for the respective territories.
All the character’s fill their roles well and it’s quite refreshing to see that they didn’t fill out the cast with too many side characters. There’s probably a total of 9 voices in the whole film which really isn’t many. it shows a focus on efficient storytelling and a commitment to ensuring that each character is key to that story. Sho in particular is an interesting character. His illness means that he is a mirror to the survival of Arrietty’s people. His life is in danger of extinction just as much as theirs is. It’s not often these days that a film aimed primarily at kids deals with death in such a frank way but it is something children should have some preparation for before they reach adulthood. No, letting them watch Die Hard isn’t a suitable introduction to the finite nature of existence. It does make for great Christmas viewing though!
Arrietty is amongst the finest of all the Ghibli films and is the first non-Miyazaki or Takahata directed films that I can honestly say without a doubt is great. the Cat Returns is good and all but it doesn’t reach this level, and Tales From Earthsea was just a disappointment. Much like your children. I kid, I’m sure they’re super. I’d easily put this amongst the top 10 Ghibli films. Where though I’m not sure. there’s so many good ones, Kiki’s Delivery Service being my favorite. Make sure you get yourself a copy of Arrietty as it really is a treat worthy of being viewed by all.