It seems only fitting that a week after Pixar unleashed their hyperactive automobile sequel upon Europe - to critical apathy - that Optimum Releasing decided to be cheeky and release Studio Ghibli's latest opus upon saturated multiplexes. And some contrast it is. (The Borrower) Arrietty - based on Mary Norton's classic The Borrowers, which you've probably seen adapted a dozen times before - is one of the most subdued, thoughtful and innocent animated films in many a year. Even more so than Ponyo, it shows Ghibli - specifically first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, with Hayao Miyazaki himself taking writing and producing credits - channeling the simple joys and wonders of childhood imagination.
Arrietty is a wee borrower - about the size of a large insect. She lives with her father Pod and mother Homily in a home underneath an old Japanese house. Arrietty's first official 'borrowing' - where the small folk borrow (alright: take) unwanted or superfluous items from 'human beans' - coincides with the arrival of the ill but kind human boy Sho. While the borrowers take great pains to avoid being seen by human eyes, Arrietty accidentally reveals herself to Sho. Despite her parent's objections - and the very real fears that they'll have to move away if the human family become aware of their presence - she lets curiosity get the better of her and forges a peculiar relationship with the friendly boy. However, Sho's maid Haru isn't so friendly...
It's a plot handled simply and very effectively. It predominantly takes place in and around a single house, and as a result the location becomes as much of a character as any of the humans or borrowers. The threats faced by the borrower family are well considered, subtle and engaging, and it helps that the main characters are by and large a likable and colourful bunch. Arrietty's curiosity about the world around her is infectious. Drawing comparisons to the 'sick mother' plot thread in Totoro, Sho's illness (he has a bad heart, but a good heart - geddit?) is a brave decision for a family film such as this - it's a story that encourages the viewer to embrace the wild and imaginative, while never forgetting that reality can be extremely cruel at the same time. Bold messages for any film, albeit ones that are handled with great care and subtlety. Most of the time, this is a joy to experience, and while you certainly become attached to the characters, it isn't the heartbreaker Grave of the Fireflies was despite a handful of moments of sadness or lingering concerns. Definitely more sweet than bitter.
The real star here is a sense of scale. The typically magnificent animation of the Ghibli team brings vivid life to the setting through two very different sized perspectives. The tiny borrowers looking upon an everyday world makes for compelling visuals from beginning to end. A beautiful touch is the way the rodent threats of the world are illustrated with glowing eyes (indeed, the scenes behind walls or under floors are highlights), but even the simple sights of them traversing a kitchen, bedroom or makeshift ladder makes for wonderful viewing. Backing it up is some stunning sound design - the rustling of clothes, the blowing wind, drops of rain. It's a fantastic miniaturised world to spend time in: the sense of wonder absent in similar films (and many other adaptations of the source material) present and correct here. It doesn't feel artificial in the slightest.
Speaking of sound, a further highlight is the absolutely tremendous soundtrack from Cécile Corbel - influenced by Celtic sources, and penetrated by - gasp! - English lyrics, but unmistakably Ghibli at the same time. It's a soundtrack that soars, encapsulating the tone of the film perfectly, especially over the original Japanese language dialogue. Through a series of unfortunate events, I had the dubious privilege of seeing half the film in subs and half in dubs. As you can likely guess, the former is a clear winner. The English dub is typically dodgy - only Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty has character. Others - including the usually reliable Mark Strong as Pod - are bland. Other minor characters have heavy English accidents so distracting it provoked giggles from some audience members. A peculiarly heavy-handed translation doesn't help. In short: as with all anime, see it subbed if you at all can.
Flaws are few - I picked up on what appeared to be a minor but distracting continuity error (the curious case of the unlocking door), and original it most certainly is not. But Arrietty by and large is a joy - innocent, charming, considered. It fits smugly into the Ghibli filmography even before Hayao Miyazaki's favourite environmental ponderings are introduced. Indeed, this is a film that's almost up with Terence Malik in terms of capturing the beauty of nature, and man intruding upon a fragile ecosystem. It's a film that has things to say, but doesn't condescend. There are plenty of subtle touches for the observant Ghibli fan to pick up on too - whether it's the opening that echoes Spirited Away or the ponderings on nature familiar from Nausicaa, Mononoke and Pom Poko.
Full of character, Arrietty shows one of world cinema's two great animation studios on top of their game after the other fumbled. Your move, Pixar.