When I think of ‘The Borrowers’ I always remember the 1997 film adaptation by Peter Hewitt, starring Jim Broadbent, John Goodman and the then young Tom Felton. However Studio Ghibli’s version is a much restrained and beautiful approach to Mary Norton’s novel. Winning the ‘Animation of the Year’ award at the 34th Japan Academy Prize, Arrietty has been largely successful in Japan. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a key animator for Studio Ghibli, this is his directorial debut, and it’s a great start for the young film maker.
Set in Koganei, outside Tokyo, the story follows a 12 year-old boy named Sho, who is suffering from a heart illness. He is visiting his great aunt’s house which is also home to a family of ‘borrowers’. ‘Borrowers’ are 10cm tall people, who ‘borrow’ from the household in order to survive. Arrietty (Mirai Shida), her father Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and mother Homily (Shinobu Ohtake) have recently settled down in their comfortable refuge. However, Arrietty’s first experience of ‘borrowing’ unfortunately leads to their discovery. Paranoid about the danger resulting from being found, the family decide to move. Yet, Sho and Arrietty form a dangerous friendship that is being threatened by the maid of the house, Haru.
Arrietty’s plot is simple with a light-hearted and gradual pacing. With fewer characters when compared to the likes of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, Arrietty is intended to be a more character developed and focused story. However my problem with the film comes in the form of the Japanese voice-acting which is usually solid in a Studio Ghibli production. The cast is filled with Ghibli ‘regulars’ and well known Japanese names. Kirin Kiki who plays Haru, the suspicious and intrusive maid, is fantastically villainous in her performance. Mirai Shida also performs well as the youthful voice of Arrietty with a charming and whimsical grasp of the character. However the characters of Spiller, Pod and Sho fail to really develop and aren’t very memorable. Their limited personalities and lack-lustre voice work definitely hinders the film, somewhat contrasting with the joyful and captivating temperament created by the stunning visuals, soundtrack and other performances.
However, what Studio Ghibli always gets right is its beautiful animation. From the gorgeous backgrounds, to the simplistic yet emotive facial expressions of the characters, the various animators and artists have outdone themselves. There’s a real richness to each ‘shot’, with a colourful palette and incredible intricacy to every minor detail. The difference in scale and atmosphere between the environments of the human characters and that of the ‘Borrowers’ is elegantly designed and composed. The result is a ‘world’ that only the imaginative and unique qualities of animation could truly portray. Soundtrack-wise, Arrietty’s score and theme song have been composed by French musician, Cécile Corbel. Taking influence from traditional Celtic music, it’s a brave departure from the usual works of Joe Hisaishi. However it’s a fantastically composed score that perfectly mirrors the visual richness of the film. The predominant use of the harp gives a calming, angelic tone that does well to enhance the delicate essence of Arrietty’s world.
Overall Arrietty is a delightful film that is a fantastic debut for the youngest director of a Studio Ghibli film. Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted an animated picture that is full of colour and emotion. However its simplistic story and dialogue, whilst accommodates for a younger audience, doesn’t hold the subtle complexities as seen in other Studio Ghibli works like Only Yesterday or Whisper of the Heart. But that doesn’t stop Arrietty from being a thoroughly enjoyable animated film. Highly Recommended