Young Sho, a boy with a heart problem, is moving in with his Great-Aunt Sadako after his divorced mother had to go on a business trip. He knows that he would be kept after by Sadako and her maid Haru, but it doesn’t take long to notice they aren’t the only people living at the house. A small family of little people, Pod, Homily and Arrietty, live under the house referring to themselves as Borrowers, as they take stuff from the house that the humans won’t notice is gone in order to survive. However, during her first Borrowing, Arrietty discovers that Sho spotted her from her trip in the garden, causing their existence to be known to the humans. Even though Arrietty believes the humans won’t do any harm, past experiences has meant any human knowledge of the little people’s whereabouts causes danger, and it doesn’t help that Haru plans on catching them as soon as she finds their home. Now Arrietty needs to undo her mistakes, and despite his condition, Sho is willing to help Arrietty make sure none of her family goes into harm’s way.
While both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have considered creating an adaptation of the Borrowers for up to 40 years, Miyazaki began work on the film on July 2008 under the title “Little Arrietty”. Because Studio Ghibli has had a desperate struggle to find new directors to work on their films, Miyazaki decide to let the Studio’s long-time artist and animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi take on the role of directing, becoming the Studio’s youngest director at the age of 36. In 2009, Bretonne singer and performer Cecile Corbel sent a CD of her work to Studio Ghibli, as a fan of their work. Impressed with her music, she was hired to compose the music for the film, including the song “Arrietty’s Song” which was released as a sing less than a year prior to the film’s release. In June 2010, production was complete and the film was released on July 17th 2010. The film was premiered in France on November 30th 2010, and was released in the UK theatrically on July 29th 2011, with a US theatrical release planned in February 2012.
What’s difficult about reviewing Studio Ghibli films nowadays is that when you’ve seen one Studio Ghibli film, you’ve pretty much seen all of them, since the animation and character design has almost remained the same. However it’s difficult to treat it as a criticism since it’s still good animation, with characters moving detailed and smoothly, with even minor movements such as Sho pausing to take breaths and changes in expressions are done to a good detail so it’s clear what the actions are, but not overblown to the point of distraction, beautifully painted backgrounds and all that redundant opinionated views that are normally given to most of their films. However it is much interesting to talk about what’s new or changed in comparison to the Studio’s past titles. In some cases, the film has a great use of both background and foreground objects, particularly in the close up scenes of the garden, which really makes the environment really delightful to look at. One little detail I also like is that animals which are viewed by the Borrowers as dangerous have red eyes, which on one hand seems out of place and unrealistic but to me it a little touch that I think really adds to the creatures themselves. The only real issue I have which I vaguely remember being noticeable in Studio Ghibli’s previous film Ponyo is that the character designs appear to reduce in detail the further they appear to be, especially when they are quite far back to the point where their eyes become little dots. It’s a minor detail to get on the nerves of perfectionists so for the average viewer the animation is as good as every other Ghibli film.
The film soundtrack is mostly very calm and beautifully played. The use of mostly Celtic folk instruments is rarely seen in anime films and from someone who occasionally enjoys Celtic music it is really fun to listen to. The actual songs the play throughout the film also fit well with the scenes they play in and are worth listening to on their own, all of which were sung by Cecile Corbel and include the film’s main theme “Arrietty’s Song”, which is actually my favourite main theme in a Studio Ghibli film. Sadly there aren’t many songs which actually fit with the atmosphere and emotional impact of scenes, such as moments of suspense or signs of any tension, which means that most of those are done through the visual sense. This isn’t a really bad problem if the animation and design is good at doing that job, which it is for the most part, so if you like listening to original music for being music then you’ll love the soundtrack.
Since as of writing this, the film is currently on its UK theatrical run, so at the moment my opinion of the Japanese voice cast is based on the film trailers and clips I find. Most of the characters sound good, particularly Mirai Shida’s calm but curious personality for Arrietty and Ryunosuke Kamiki’s polite and mature young male tone for Sho, sadly I can’t find many clips of the other characters to give a good opinion but I assume that because the Japanese cast features actors which are suitable for their character’s age, appearance and attitude, along with the fact that Studio Ghibli has a good track record of a well-chosen and well rewarded voice casting that the Japanese voice cast will be really good and may be superior to any other dub by default.
What’s really unusual and intriguing about the English cast is that there is actually two, since from what I guess; Disney created both a US voice dub and a UK voice dub to gain recognisability in both countries. The US cast features Bridget Medler, David Henrie, Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler, mostly actors of US TV Dramas with the younger cast having a history with the Disney Channel, not a cast that would be known to the common UK audiences, and since the US version will not be released until February 2012 I won’t be reviewing it. The UK cast is a mixed bag, although it’s rather listenable. Arrietty, voiced by Saorise Ronan, is probably the most tolerable, since she has a nice, young and uplifting voice, and having a light British accent is effective, but while she tries to convey emotions, she doesn’t have a very noticeable range. Tom Holland and Phylida Law as Sho and his Great Aunt Sadako respectively are examples of the middle ground performances in this film, they sound like their characters but don’t really give much emotion or realism to make them memorable performances. One thing that bothered me about the voice of Sho, and I’ve noticed this in other Ghibli films is that he either sounds too old or in this case too young in comparison to the English dub. Pod and Spiller, voiced by Mark Strong and Luke Allen-Gale, on the other hand are actually quite interesting. Pod is normally sound calm and collected, but his tone stills conveys a form of authority over his wife Homily and Arrietty. Spiller, a native type of borrower, has a very minimal use of words for dialogue, but his hostile sounds and tone of voice really shows the native and wilderness personality. Either way, it’s tolerable and worth a listen.
To be honest, there isn’t much to talk about the story as a film, it’s simple and easy to follow, the amount of suspense and exploration is kept to a minimum, there is a small message about the human’s impact on the world that’s neither subtle nor forced and most of the actions and reactions of both the humans discovering the little people and the little people seeing the large world around them through their eyes is pretty much the same as other films and stories which uses that similar story element. There’s nothing terrible about it outside that it’s rather dull, but it still has a charm to it that makes it enjoyable. As an adaptation the story is viewed differently, but I don’t regard faithfulness to the original source material as form or praise or criticism because in my mind, a film is a film and a book is a book, and the word “adaptation” means the story that is written to be told through one medium is retooled so it can be told through a different medium. Anything that is lost or altered in the translation is through the choice of the writers, and they should be judged on whether it makes the telling of the story through that medium works, not whether the change makes the adaptation better or worse. So as a story for an anime film, it’s good to watch but nothing that would win the awards for storytelling because it doesn’t pull off any risks or contain any special moments. The films only problem, especially when I saw it, was Haru, Sadako’s maid and the film’s closest form of an antagonist and the problem mainly lies with the way she is portrayed. Throughout the film, she switches from quiet and shifty-eyed suspicious character to goofy and over the top villainous character constantly as she wants to catch the little people, just like Ms Driver from the novel, so most of the time I knew she was supposed to be the antagonist, but not really sure if she was meant to be the diabolically comedic or the cartoony villain, whether she is the same or different as Ms Driver in the books does not change my opinion in any way.
Overall, what we have as one of the latest from Studio Ghibli is a film to enjoy for its visual and musical appeal more than a story telling epic like Laputa or Only Yesterday. The film is worth a watch for its great design and music, although its story is nothing too special. What is special about this film is the amount of stuff done differently for a Ghibli film, and some for anime films in general, such as having a foreign musician brought on as the composer or the film internationally supported by two dubs for one language for recognisability. The film did amazingly well in Japan, especially for a debuting director, so let’s make sure this film does as well in the rest of the world.
Arrietty is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. The original novel series written by Mary Norton has been reprinted countless times and are currently available from Puffin Books. A film comic version is available from Viz Comics, but unless you haven’t read some of my past Studio Ghibli film reviews, Film comics are not worth your money unless you like seeing film screenshots pasted into pages with speech bubbles attached. Unrelated to the Ghibli film, the Borrowers has had quite a few other adaptations, some of which may be worth your time. These include a 1974 made-for-TV movie starring Eddie Albert from NBC, a 1992 miniseries and a 1993 follow up titled “Return of the Borrowers” from the BBC and Turner Home Entertainment, and a 1997 theatrical film starring John Goodman from PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.