There are many English language books that are very popular in Japan. One of these is classic children’s novel The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Critically acclaimed animators Studio Ghibli and first time director (although long time animator) Hiromasa Yonebayashi adapted the story for their 2010 movie Arrietty, or titled The Secret World of Arrietty in some areas. So, how do the Japanese take to the tale of tiny people living in the walls?
On the face of it, all the key Ghibli ingredients are here: a charming setting with fantastical elements, a strong independent young woman striking out to take her place in the world, and all manner of detailed animations showcasing the talent of the studio’s artists. Yet whether it is the relative inexperience of Yonebayashi or simply the extremely high quality of Studio Ghibli’s other titanic directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, it quickly becomes clear that Arrietty is lacking.
Where the movie works well is drawing us into the miniature world of Arrietty (Saorise Ronan). She is excited to be taken out by her father (Mark Strong) for her first ‘borrowing’ and as she steps over giants screws on her way to a massive echoey kitchen there is fun to be had in following her determination. Similarly, when the human world and the borrower worlds collide there are striking scenes. The tiny family live in a makeshift house but in the later stages of the film the roof is ripped off by a human, and the contrast between a small scale house being devastated and the zoom out to show a human casually removing the roof without effort is thrilling.
But Arrietty suffers from a ‘who cares?’ problem. The stakes barely exist as the central plot revolves around a love story between the diminutive Arrietty and human boy Shō. Shō is a city boy sent to live in the country for the good air, as he is suffering from a sickliness that leaves him weak and infirm. Aside from his curiosity about the small girl who sneaks into his room at night to steal tissues, there is very little actual connection between the two characters.
In the English dub the very flat performance from Tom Holland fails to imbue Shō with any personality and it would be a hard-pressed fan to come back to the movie for romance reasons. However, unusually there is also an American dub as well as an English dub and the Japanese original soundtrack so you have plenty of options.
Also unusually for a Ghibli film there is an actual antagonist in the form of elderly housemaid Haru. Well, antagonist insofar as she becomes aware of the existence of the borrowers and callously tries to capture them to prove their existence. Her presence (Geraldine McEwan) adds some dramatic tension at points, but is treated more as a plot mover than an actual key thread of the movie.
Arrietty is a movie for younger viewers in that there is bare-bones storytelling here. Scenes are set up and played out without much need to follow the feeling from one to the next. Whereas directors like Miyazaki do this by capturing an essence of youth or an overarching theme (such as My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo), Yonebayashi’s delivery is more like someone trying to imitate the masters without really grasping what made them work so well.
Even taking that into account Arrietty is a perfectly serviceable movie whose biggest delights come from enjoying the quality of animation on display. The movie is full of lingering shots enjoying the clashing scales of items and events. Scaled up you can enjoy droplets of water that hang pregnant off of towering blades of grass, and, à la movies such as Honey I Shrunk The Kids, it is fun to see insects chitter along with thumping heft.
Plus the threat posed by a lumbering Ghibli cat is a beauty to behold! For Ghibli enthusiasts Arrietty will likely be bottom of the pile of go to movies, but when compared to churned out CGI fare it still has plenty of punch packed into such a small parcel.
Words by Michael Record