March 1, 2012

Arietty Asserts Animation’s Potential

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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.

Original Author: Colin Chan