Studio Ghibli has a massive reputation in the world of animation, deservedly sitting at the zenith alongside the equally excellent Pixar. Cars 2 might have been a lull in the otherwise excellent back catalogue; unfortunately it’s been a long time since I could happily call myself a fan of Ghibli. Since the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the studio has been stuck in a state of ever diminishing returns with the frankly over-rated Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and the low point in Tales of the Earthsea. Ghibli is back in 2011 with the Borrower Arrietty, the immediate question that strikes me as a fan is whether this is a return to form or is the rot continuing to eat away at their exemplary reputation?
Even before this film had seen the light of day it was victim to scoffs aplenty thanks to this being a remake of the already well-travelled literary classic The Borrowers by Mary Morton. In case you haven’t encountered this tale before, both it and Arrietty tell the tale of a young sickly boy who discovers that there is a family of incredibly small people living under his house. These small creatures are the Borrowers they get their name from borrowing small items and foodstuffs that won’t be missed. The daughter of the family, the titular Arrietty, has a run in with the sickly Sho and they both end up changing each other’s lives for the better. There might be a lack of conflict but you are smothered with the warmth of it all that you really don’t have the time to stop and take stock.
Arrietty is a simple tale told well. It is also the most straight-faced film from a studio known for all things fantastical. Despite the screenplay being written by Miyizaki this has none of the flights of fancy or ecological themes that he is known for nor does it have the social commentary of an Isao Takahata film. Diehard Ghibli fans might call shenanigans on such a straight film being housed under the iconic banner, others, me included, see this as a simple film free from the complexity of some of its most famous cousins. Additionally this is a perfect entry point into what is something hard to access for the casual and mainstream viewer. As popular as both anime and Ghibli is there are very few occasions where you can say that something which fits under those groups can be watched by anyone, Arrietty is such a film. The only other film which is both a piece of Japanese animation and accessible to a mainstream audience is Porco Rosso, Miyizaki’s Casablanca stylised story of a man turned into a pig for cowardice during the first world war.
It might be the most straight adaptation of a famously concept heavy studio, yet that’s not to say this doesn’t have anything in common with its older cousins. Making such a sweeping statement would mean you have missed many little touches and homage’s. The way in which the film places such value on the everyday and the natural world make it the perfect companion piece to My Neighbour Totoro. In fact these two films would make the loveliest double bill imaginable. Sho is a recycled character model of Pazu, the male lead in Laputa and there is a warrior boy who appears midway through the film, called Spiller, who is remarkably similar to Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke even down to the garb that he wears being the same.
The most prescient thing you will notice when watching Arrietty is the sheer unadulterated beauty conjured up by the skilled hands of the animation team. In this age where near enough all animated films released in the West are computer generated it is so refreshing to see something with the personality of hand drawn animation. There might not be the scope of vision of a traditional Ghibli film but that hasn’t stopped the artists on board with this film from representing the everyday whether it is a simple garden, or the even more mundanely the rooms of a house, with such care and affection. There might not be a great amount happening on-screen and there might not be a great deal of conflict save for the final third of the film but it’s one of those films where the visuals and cinematography is so inch perfect that it becomes a visual spectacle. The only negative I can really think of is the sung soundtrack, instrumentally it fits perfectly. With lyrics like “I am 14 years old, I am pretty”, it really made some songs a bitter pill to swallow.
The Borrower Arrietty, Arrietty or whatever you want to call it might feel more like homage to one of the most beloved film studios in the world and I, for one, do not construe that as a negative. This is a beautiful animated and affectionately told story with a cast of well-rounded characters that pays off in all the right ways. This film by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is a perfect entry point to anime and all things Ghibli. Give it a watch if you get the chance but make sure it’s either in the original Japanese or the English dub. The cast of the American dub is enough to cause nightmares.