Produced by Studio Ghibli

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Most Western cinema-goers became aware of the mighty Ghibli studio back in 2001 when their twelfth movie; Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated feature. Perhaps they took the time to then investigate some of their wondrous back catalogue, or maybe at the very least checked out director Hayao Miyazaki’s follow-up release Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004. But chances are high that many fans have since lost interest and only old school devotees have been awaiting the studios latest release with bated breathe.

Part of the reason for this is due to a slight dip in quality for the studio as their alumni founders think of retirement and new directors are allowed to helm recent features such as Tales from Earthsea, the well made but flawed debut by Miyazaki’s own son Goro Miyazaki (who has been given a second chance with next years far more intriguing Kokurikozaka Kara) or The Cat Returns, the unnecessary sequel to the studios beloved Whisper of the Heart and arguably their most mediocre work. But with Miyazaki’s stellar Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (release 2008 in Japan, 2009 in USA and 2010 in UK) out last year and his possible swan song Porco Rosso 2 coming in 2012, this newest project to be helmed by a newcomer is made all the more crucial in the repaving for the studios future.

Well, we say newcomer, but director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been working with studio Ghibli since Princess Mononoke and was a key animator on both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle, so he has clearly proven his worth over the past twelve years or so. But with a screenplay written by Hayao Miyazaki himself and based upon a classic English novel The Borrowers, this newest entry is a tough job to live up to. Luckily and (to be honest) rather surprisingly, he succeeds on almost every level.

Staying close to the source material that centres (as if you didn’t know) around a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards and sneak out into the humans world to ‘borrow’ (read; steal) items they need, Hiromasa seamlessly transfers the essence and charm of the original into a wholly Japanese environment whilst balancing nods toward English architecture and design with great visual zest and oddly fitting confidence. The animation is always superb in Ghibli features but I have to say that while Ponyo (with it’s “no CGI” rule) may still lead in terms of sheer physical achievement and teeming eye-candy, it’s now Arrietty that carries the baton for just what an incredibly high standard this studio can animate to. The startlingly detailed backgrounds that are simply crammed with detail and flourishes are astonishing and wholly convincing for a film based in such a fantasy set-up, as are the perfectly designed characters that interact within it, all animated to a startlingly smooth standard.

The world is simply alive with ebbing waters, crawling bugs, lolling grasses (that tower like skyscrapers) and the brave promise of the highest adventure made up from the simplest of everyday occurrences. But so much of this comes down to the direction. Hiromasa kicks off the film with a startling twenty or so minute opener which shows Arrietty’s first foray into the humans household. It’s all played out with such an extraordinary eye for detail, scale, and emotion (fear playing against excitement) that you’re right there with her, finding yourself bewilderingly tense at the anticipation of her scaling a tissue box. Sadly it’s a sequence that the film never manages to surpass in it’s subsequent running time, but that’s hardly a real criticism.

The sound plays a huge part of course, flipping the dominance of noises as we move between the human lead and Arrietty (or her kind), all helping to create a true impression of the dominating immenseness of the world they inhabit whilst somehow managing to allow intimacy to creep in during the films tender moments. Of which there are many.

Clocking in at merely 90mins this is also one of the studios shortest films, which seems a little odd as there’s clearly a bigger story to be told here and the emotive finale leaves plenty of room for follow-up tales and some may (fairly) criticise the movie of feeling more like an opening for a larger tale than a self-contained film in its own right, but whether you like that approach or not it a personal taste issue and certainly not a contrived decision by Ghibli to build a franchise. That’s simply not how they (or Japan in general) operate.

This lack of a real pay-off is accentuated by the films incredibly relaxed and casual pacing. Despite it’s direction and animation focusing adventure through a fantasy set-up, Arrietty ends up feeling closer in style and flavour to Miyazaki’s early works such as Totoro or the late Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday. Hiromasa allows the film to breathe at its own pace and its hard to tell whether the copious amounts of wonderfully intimate moments with nature are of his own design or built from Miyazaki’s initial draft, but either way – it creates a reflective and very personal coming-of-age story.

There are some flaws, such as a couple of moments of odd slapstick that may not appeal to everyone, and the key threat of the film seems a little forced, but over-all there’s little to criticise. Personally my only real gripe was the occasionally ill-fitting score, which is perhaps understandable since Ghibli decided (for the first time ever) to ditch their usual composer Joe Hisaishi and to contract in a young French singer called Cecile Corbel. It’s not that it’s bad or jarring as such, in fact she generally does a fine job, but there were moments where it felt a little too twee and over-all I yearned for the more complex, classic styling’s of Joe Hisaishi which I feel would have benefited the movie more. But as it didn’t detract from the film.

The Borrower Arrietty (recently renamed simply Arrietty for its US release) is by no means the finest Ghibli film released and it won’t linger with you for as long as many of their other titles. It’s not the most exciting or action-packed and it has its fair share of (tiny) problems.

But it is a lovely, engrossing, gorgeously animated, summer breeze of a film that everyone should go out and see if they get the opportunity.
It shows at least that there is hope for the studio when the founders have all hung up their quills and paint brushes and that with two more features out in the next twelve months or so – Ghibli is well on the rise once more.

Reviewed by Al White