Friday, 16 September 2011


I'm a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, from the epic Princess Mononoke, to the adventurous Spirited Away, to the delightful Ponyo. For Arrietty the Studio hands over the reins from principle director Hayao Miyazaki - who still writes and produces - to newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and I have to say, it's my favourite of the lot.

It's just one of those films where I'd quite happily watch in real-time for the whole of the characters' lives - it is that enthralling, charmingly inventive and detailed and so involving. It's a wonderfully realised fantasy - a bit like how Fern Gully was for me as a child. I can only imagine seeing this through the eyes of a little girl and the transformative effect it would conjure.

I've never read/watched The Borrowers so know little of the story other than the essentials: they are little people who take from human beings, whom they consider frightening and dangerous. Studio Ghibli have taken the core themes and ideas from the British children's book, and with their own luscious and meticulous attention created an animated adventure story, but one that is as much about character as it is about escaping fierce hungry crows.

Arrietty is a teenage girl who lives with her mother and father within the floorboards of a beautiful country house surrounded by gardens, forest and a lake. They have been living undisturbed for many a year, living off the father's borrowing from the human house and creating a gorgeous home of their own (more on that in a minute). But their peaceful existence is interrupted when a young sickly boy, Shôcomes to stay at the house and spies Arrietty on her first borrowing trip. His effort to make friends with her puts her family in danger as the meddlesome housekeeper finds out, and threatens to wipe the house of the little people once and for all.

The borrowers house is AMAZING. It's the kind of place you cannot even envisage let alone dream about living in.

Later the family will become mesmerised by the doll's house Shô has in his room, but for me, their own one is far superior and desirable in every way. Because of their height leaves are like trees to them; tissues are like blankets; sugar cubes are like bricks. It's the fairytale element that grabbed me straight away - how they live beneath the rubble of floorboards unnoticed in a picturesque house where a bay leaf can last them a whole year and Arrietty's bedroom (above) is adorned with flowers like a giant meadow and she sits on a pouffe which is actually an apple (I'm pretty besotted with the apple pouffe and would gladly shrink to the size of a mug just so I could have one).

The amount of detail gone into telling us the story through the eyes of the borrowers is just incredible. The journey from their house into the human world sees them navigate nails, plugs and ledges with rucksacks of specially tried equipment. And just as humans pass other humans, transport and buildings every day, so the borrowers must pass bugs and insects, and walk over plants and air grates as if they are walls and roads. It's so thoughtfully and delicately done, and that is what I mean by wanting to watch it forever. You almost don't want there to be any conflict or 'story' - but of course, there must be.

Arrietty is feisty, resourceful and above all utterly engaging as the young girl who longs for adventure, for other borrowers like her to interact with, for responsibility. Her relationship with Shô is beautiful for how scared she is of speaking to a human being, but how desperate we are for her to trust him as we know he means her no harm. They cannot be together - it's impossible - but the friendship and connection these two have mean the ending is almost too emotional to watch (I cried A LOT when the cat brings Shô to her. There's also a lovely scene where Spiller, a young 'native' borrower clearly lined up to be Arrietty's future husband - sees her talking with Shô and lines up his bow and arrow to shoot, thinking she is in danger. It reminded me a lot of Pocahontas, strangely).

Whilst this doesn't have the edge and menace nature of some of the Ghibli films, its heart and innocence elevate it above that. Better and more powerful than Ponyo - which gets a little extraneous towards the end - even though this is billed as a children's film it had a 25 year old entranced and blubbing throughout such was its impact, and its 'happy ending' is far from Disney-like. Packed with characters and expressions you will only associate with Ghibli, Arrietty is one of the finest animations I have ever seen and will linger in your mind long after the teapot has sailed off into the ocean (the lake at the end of the garden).

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