Arrietty (Japan: Kari-gurashi no Arietti), 2010.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Featuring the voice talents of Saoirse Ronan, Olivia Colman, Mark Strong, Tom Holland and Phyllida Law.
Beneath the floorboards of a sprawling mansion in a magical, overgrown garden in the suburbs of Tokyo, lives tiny 14-year-old Arrietty and her equally tiny parents.
I knew very little about Japan’s prestigious Studio Ghibli prior to being asked to see Arrietty for Flickering Myth. For the uninitiated the Pixar comparison is helpful, if not altogether accurate. Like Pixar, Studio Ghibli makes successful and aesthetically stunning films, with strong storylines. In their respective spheres both are admired for being at the cutting edge of animation. Both are loved by critics and ordinary cinemagoers alike. Both have a reputation for quality and crafting tales for children that will also delight adults. Both know how to tug at the heartstrings of all ages.
However Studio Ghibli are the real artisans. As Pixar embraces new technologies for its summer release Cars 2, Arrietty is a showcase for breathtaking but traditional hand drawn animation. As Pixar was consumed by Disney and became increasingly mainstream, Studio Ghibli continued to ignore trivial concerns like profit and loss, in favour of meaning and beauty. Their attentions are always solely concentrated on the art of what they are doing. They have no departments dedicated to marketing or merchandise. They plough everything, including the financial security of the company, into every film they make. They literally pour their hearts and souls into their stories, to say new and surprising things with trusted techniques.
In the case of Arrietty, adapted from The Borrowers by Mary Norton (which has been transformed several times for British viewers), the messages are as adult as always. Perhaps the strong artistic integrity of the company is down to the fact that founder Hayao Miyazaki is still at the helm and his ideas shape Arrietty. According to the production notes he thought that the subject of borrowing “fits perfectly with the way things are today” and that the “era of mass consumption is coming to a close”. With the global recession combining with the effects of declining natural resources, pollution and global warming, “the idea of borrowing instead of buying shows very well the direction things are headed”.
There are also passages of dialogue in the film that reflect on mortality and the extinction of wonderful species in their entirety. The Borrowers, essentially mini versions of ourselves, are clearly meant to enhance our feelings of empathy for creatures buffeted and threatened by the sheer scale of mankind.
Arrietty herself is a strong female protagonist, whose feminine and childlike tendencies begin as weaknesses exposing her family’s secret existence, but end the film as vindicated strengths. There are also firmly implied sexual undertones to the friendship that develops between 14 year old Arrietty and the human boy that comes to live in the house The Borrowers shelter within. Unfortunately even to have a strong feminine lead remains bold by Hollywood standards, let alone tackling themes like extinction and the sexual development of childhood.
Aside from the serious substance weaved into the narrative though, Arrietty is also simply a well executed and mesmerising 94 minutes. From the opening scene rich and vivid visuals combine with enchanting sounds to create a fairy tale world that anyone can enjoy, despite the doses of sobering realism. The posters plastered all over the Tube rightly hail this film as a “magical” experience. And it’s not often that word is accurate or justified when referring to anything other than the Harry Potter series.
Arrietty lives with her mother and father in their home beneath a large house in the suburbs of Tokyo, with a lush, green and overgrown garden sprawling all around it. They take what the human occupants of the house will not miss in order to live. A young boy (Sho) instructed to rest due to illness, is sent to live with his relative at the house, and her housekeeper Haru. Arrietty’s father takes her for her first borrowing early in the film, as she must soon learn how to fend for herself. However after successfully procuring a sugar cube, Arrietty is seen by Sho in his bed and she drops it. Her family’s existence is plunged into a state of constant apprehension because at least one human now knows about them.
As well as drawing (haha) on a British story for inspiration, Arrietty also has a strong cast of British vocal talent for its UK release. Mark Strong’s distinctive voice gives life to Arrietty’s brave but conservative father Pod, even if his performance consists of little more than a series of wise, speculative or knowing grunts. He is a convincing mentor and it’s refreshing to see (or hear) him as something other than a sinister baddie. Elsewhere there are terrific comedic performances, considerably helped by the expressive animation, from Peep Show’s Olivia Colman as Arrietty’s mother and Geraldine McEwan as anti-Borrower housekeeper Haru. Rising star of Atonement and Hanna Saoirse Ronan does a fantastic job voicing Arrietty herself.
There is something British about Arrietty that goes beyond the source material or the vocal talent. Perhaps it’s the focus on the garden that accounts for the familiar but seductive flavour. The colours and textures are so wonderfully realised at times that you feel as if you are watching an exhibition of acclaimed paintings rather than a movie. The soundtrack to the film is touching, tapping in sentimentally to the fantasy, and the sound effects too are superb, bringing things back to reality with lifelike downpours of rain a sensual feast for the ears as well as the eyes.
I stop a considerable way short of calling Arrietty a perfect film or even perfect animation. At times its art house leanings slow the pace to such an extent in the name of beauty that interest inevitably wanes despite the loveliness and splendour. Equally its high minded goals of making political points leads to some of the weakest and forced, as well as some of the strongest and deep, dialogue. Even in terms of originality it is lacking, given how dependent it is on a story already an entrenched part of British culture.
However overall Arrietty is a beguiling and beautiful film, with both a mind and a soul. Despite my reservations it was not pretentious or lecturing but enjoyable, engaging and yes, magical. No other film, animated or otherwise, will better capture the complex simplicity of childhood this year.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)
Movie Review Archive