Arrietty is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. In a re-imagining of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Arrietty relocates to rural Japan, following the day-to-day lives of the Clock family. Father Pod (Strong), mother Homily (Coleman), and daughter Arrietty (Ronan) live under the floorboards, try their best to avoid crows, cats, and humans, and ‘borrow’ what they think no one will miss in order to survive. When Sho (Holland) comes to stay at his aunt’s to rest up before having heart surgery, he and Arrietty begin a tentative and dangerous friendship.
The core of the film is this friendship. It’s sweet with a lot of heart, as both protagonists yearn for someone that they can connect with. Ronan voices Arrietty with the curiosity and desires of a girl who wants to please her father, but must look after her mother, as well as sate her own yearning to explore the world and assert herself as her own person. Sho seems a little flat somehow though, as Holland never seemed to quite get across the excitement you would think Sho would feel at finding the Little People his mother told him about, and finally having a friend.
Strong is perfect casting for the grunting, hard-to-please tough-man Pod, the weight of his family’s survival placed firmly on his shoulders. However Homily is not a three-dimensional character, so Coleman has little to do other than gasp, scream and squeal. I found Homily largely irritating, she didn’t seem to serve a purpose within the piece, and her constant anxiety about the world grew to be grating.
The lack of trust from the Little People emanates through the picture, and its with a sadness that the situation isn’t resolved. Having worked in the animation department of Studio Ghibli for many years, first-time director Yonebayashi knows how to keep the Ghibli magic going, keeping Arrietty light enough for the kids, without overstepping into being Disney-frothy. The constant threat of danger for the Clock family, the divorce and constant absence of Sho’s parents, and his possibly-fatal heart operation keep at least one foot on the ground. The diminishing numbers of the Little People in the face of a changing environment could be read as an allegory, as Sho reminds us just how many species have already gone extinct.
The watercolour Impressionistic backgrounds to the animation are beautiful and sumptuous. The dreamlike quality of the natural world reflects to the audience the awe and fascination that Arrietty sees in it. The scene where she has climbed onto the roof, and looks out across the garden is so picturesque, and so beautifully drawn that the audience is put in the position of Arrietty, and are too taken aback at the glory of the natural world.
Not a great deal happens regarding the plot, it’s a slow moving film, and it takes a long time to build up what is ultimately the heart of the movie; the friendship between Arrietty and Sho amid the tensions between their respective worlds. The dialogue is fairly basic and there is little action to keep the audience entertained until the emotional core unfolds, so the film does run the risk of some audience members losing interest.
Arrietty ambles along nicely enough however, and fans of previous Studio Ghibli pieces will surely revel in the atmosphere and the animation, although it does lack some of the sparkle that made My Neighbour Totoro and Ponyo so special. It’s a faithful adaptation from Norton’s original though, and it’s fans will not be let down.