Animation can be a fantastic storytelling medium. The sterling string of Pixar’s critically acclaimed hits has well illustrated the truth of this conjecture with aplomb. So are the startlingly lush and vividly told movies of Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Almost every Ghibli movie that has ever been made has been a masterpiece of lovingly crafted animation with an amazing eye for detail, atmosphere and emotionality. Ghibli’s latest iteration, The Borrower Arrietty, is an example of the unique Ghibli brand of slow, slice-of-life movie set in the reality of the moment but pushing on the boundaries of the fantastic. Other examples of this type include My Neighbor Totoro and The Cat Returns. Arrietty, however, is different in that it is not helmed by Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki, but by one of his disciples, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, in his directorial debut. And what a debut it is! I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that this might be one of the most perfectly crafted movies I have ever watched.
Based on a juvenile fantasy novel, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, The Borrower Arrietty features little people called Borrowers, who stand only about as tall as your thumb, who live in the secret spaces under human homes and occasionally venture out to “borrow” necessities to survive – a single cube of sugar, or a bay leaf. The eponymous protagonist Arrietty (played in the Disney dub by Bridgit Mendler) is a fourteen-year-old Borrower, who, in the course of her first Borrowing, meets and befriends a sickly human boy (David Henrie). Of course, borrowers, in the true tradition of pixies and gnomes, must avoid being seen by the curious humans, and when found out, they must move – or risk discovery and capture by the pesky housemaid Hara (Carol Burnett).
In lesser hands this might be a successful formula for a light-hearted romp through a narrative orthodoxy of well-worn tropes that you might expect from a Dreamworks feature. Studio Ghibli, however, takes it a step further by injecting some unusually serious themes into the mix. The boy, Shawn, is due to undergo a life-threatening operation. His fatalistic attitude with regards to his medical condition clashes with the Borrower creed to survive at all costs – that despite the dangers associated with being tinier than a housecat that only wants to eat tiny facsimiles of its supposed masters – they must muster the will and the courage to live, survive and prosper in a world that seems so bent on denying them safe refuge. Other themes poke through more subtly – the borrowers’ reluctance to come into contact with humans carries with it a hint of the Ghibli brand of environmental activism. In addition, Arrietty is the very definition of the strong Ghibli female protagonist so typical of Miyazaki’s works.
What makes Arrietty such a perfect gem of a film, however, is more than just its Ghibli pedigree and the themes that infuse it. The film is visually stunning. Every frame drips with an almost excessive attention to detail. Every scene is set in a lush and verdant palette. Character animations are naturalistic and whimsical, without that annoying economy of movement that plagues other animated products. The soundscape is amazing, especially given the nature of the plot. From the perspective of the tiny Borrowers, everything on the human scale is breathtakingly huge. Dust mites scuttle like giant armadillos. Prowling cats are like charging elephants. The rattling of crockery is lightning and thunder. Human footsteps reverberate like the steps of a mountain giant in a cavernous eldritch hall. The visual template of minuteness is also lovingly crafted. After rain, Arrietty brushes droplets of water as big as her head off her clothes. When her mother pours tea, the green droplets well out of the spout and bounce into the cups like oversized jellies. A tiny pin becomes Arrietty’s very own sword.
The narrative doesn’t proceed as you’d expect. This might be one of the freshest children’s films you might ever watch. That’s not to say it lacks predicable plot twists, just that these are handled without undue sappiness or contrivance. The ending is perfect: bittersweet, conclusive and heartbreakingly mature, somewhat like closing the back cover of a wonderful book that you spent an afternoon reading on the porch. And that is truly the feeling that this film is trying to achieve – that nostalgic feeling of summertime in childhood and the fun we had with friends big and small. Arrietty’s and Shawn’s friendship is an ephemeral, forbidden one: a bond forged between two worlds that do not touch, but is made more powerful because of its briefness. In a sense, it resembles that perfect summer that everyone holds dear in their hearts – a time of your life so precious that you never wanted to let go, but which ended, like all other halcyon times and which remains in full bloom through rose-tinted memory.
If there’s one quibble I had to make, it would be the Disney dub. In general, the voices are excellent, but the anglicization of the character names from the original Japanese introduces a little cognitive dissonance as we see all these putatively Japanese characters call each other Jessica and Shawn while eating their rice with chopsticks and wearing slippers around the house. Not saying there’s anything wrong with cross-cultural influence, but this move by Disney struck me as rather pointless, especially since they’ve never done it with any other Ghibli adaptation. The ending song ‘Summertime’, sung by Bridgit Mendler, is also a tad too…R&B-ish for the likes of this demographic, and compromises the tone of the credits scene somewhat, by taking the limelight away from the original song that was there in the Japanese release.
If you like animation even in the slightest, watch this movie. For dedicated Ghibli fans, this is also a must-watch. It’s not overtly juvenile like Ponyo, nor is it epic like Princess Mononoke. It’s a perfect movie for the all-age demographic, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend an evening watching this gem of a film. If there were any justice in this world, this movie would win an Oscar for best animation.