In an age were most animated feature films are computer generated it is good to see that Studio Ghibli perseveres with telling stories in the traditional hand drawn 2D format. Although there are plenty of cartoon movies produced in Japan, anime is seen as a niche genre so most of them don’t get a big screen release over here. Thankfully the Ghibli masterpieces get some box office exposure on these shores thanks to a distribution deal with Walt Disney. Arrietty, which I am reviewing today, is the latest offering I have watched from the legendary Japanese studio whose previous works include the highly regarded Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke and the Oscar winning Spirited Away.
Arrietty is Japan’s take on the 1950s children’s book The Borrowers, a property that has already been adapted several times into live action movies and a TV show. Esteemed animator Hayao Miyazaki helped to pen the script, for this version of Mary Horton’s book, leaving the directorial duties in the hands of newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Thankfully having an inexperienced chap at the helm hasn’t impacted on the quality of the piece, with the film sporting the quality animation and attention to detail that Studio Ghibli is renowned for.
The movie is titled after the protagonist Arrietty Clock who is a young Borrower (a race of diminutive humanoids.) Arrietty and her parents live underneath a house situated in the Japanese countryside. When the film kicks off Arrietty has grown enough to assist her father with his after dark scavenging trips were they “borrow” items and food from the humans who reside in the house above them. Due to the potential dangers of being exposed, Borrowers shy away from humans and keep their existence a secret by only borrowing insignificant things from their hosts, which will go unnoticed (like a cube of sugar or piece of tissue paper.)
Unfortunately for Arrietty her inaugural borrowing excursion doesn’t go well. The over zealous youngster, excited at the prospect of exploring the upper echelons of the human house, ends up getting seen by Sho, a sickly boy who recently moved into the peaceful country home to relax in anticipation of necessary surgery on his heart. Although forbidden to interact with humans, due to the potential risks that can arise, Arrietty ends up forming a friendship with the boy as the lonely pair don’t have anyone from their own age groups to mingle with. For a while things seem to be going well, but all that changes when the home’s cruel housekeeper catches wind that minute thieves may be scurrying under the floorboards.
Although the story is fairly straightforward and simple I found myself captivated throughout the movie’s ninety minute duration due to the sublime artwork and likeable characters. Once you get invested in the narrative it is easy to accept that the cast are alive instead of being composed of still images due to the neat little touches the animators add. The way Arrietty interacts with the environment is so life like such as how she brandishes a clothespin like a sword or nonchalantly picks up a nearby curled up woodlouse and plays with it as if it were a football.
Arrietty is a sweet girl and I imagine most viewers will have no problems rooting for her. I dug seeing the world from her perspective and how something humdrum like a garden becomes an inhospitable jungle for someone of her stature. Her father comes across as wise and composed in contrast to his wife whose hysterical panic attacks provide some comedic moments when disaster strikes. Unlike the bratty kids you find in other cartoons Sho is a well-mannered ally to Arrietty so I always felt concerned when he overexerted himself keeping in mind the weak heart he suffers from.
It’s easy to praise Arrietty from a cosmetic point of view, but I should also point out that the movie is no chump when it comes to auditory treats either. I found the score, composed by French harpist Cecile Corbel, to be beautiful and the voice actors all did a brilliant job bringing the characters to life. The European Studio Canal release has a voice cast including Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, English actor Mark Strong and Billy Elliot the Musical dancer Tom Holland. After listening to their portrayal of the characters I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the parts, so I would advise against importing the Region One version of the movie that has populated the roles with kids from Disney Channel shows.
As far as grading goes, I have no hesitation awarding Arrietty five stars. Even though it’s not the sort of thing I normally go for, I found myself falling in love with the movie’s whimsical tale. It’s hard to gage how others will evaluate the movie, but I suppose Arrietty’s biggest critics may be kids in their early teens. Their limited attention spans may not allow them to enjoy something lacking in action or crude fart jokes. Anyone else should however give it a thumbs up. The artistry of it all should mesmerize youngsters whilst their parents should appreciate the wholesome storytelling that out-disneys Walt Disney.