Saturday, May 28, 2011

REVIEW: The Borrower Arrietty

借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Karigurashi no Arietti)

Released: 2010

Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Starring (voice talent):
Mirai Shida
Ryunosuke Kamiki
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Shinobu Ootake
Keiko Takeshita

Running time: 94 mins.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Arrietty lives at home with her father Pod and her mother Homily. Like most teenagers Arriety if full of energy. She feels like she just can't grow up fast enough; but like most families this trio has more to worry about than Arrietty's dreams of adventure. Pod and Homily are having trouble making ends meet and they're considering moving from their home. Maybe simplifying their lives will ease the situation. One day, though, the family's life is upset when Arrietty meets a boy. Oh, and did I mention that Arrietty and her parents are only about six inches tall and that their home is located underneath the floorboards of a large country house, and it's from this house that the family "borrows" everything they need to survive - food, materials for clothing and odds and ends to furnish their home. They only take just what they need, though, so as to never draw attention to themselves. That's exactly what happens when Arrietty's young admirer, Sho, catches sight of her one night when she and Pod come venture into the house for some sugar and tissue. This young man, who has come to convalesce in his aunt's home before he goes for heart surgery, means Arrietty's family no harm, but the friendship he forges with this tiny girl, and the attention it brings, is exactly what her family has been trying to avoid. Soon their lives are turned upside down by the servant woman who cares for Sho.

This is, more or less, the basic story of Mary Norton's 1952 children's novel "The Borrowers", a book that has captured the imaginations of film-makers for nearly 40 years. Norton's fantasy been adapted into two made-for-TV movies, one in the U.S. and one on the U.K., and into a feature film directed by Peter Hewitt. Now Norton's tale has been adapted into a script by none other than Hayao Miyazaki. That script forms the basis of "The Borrower Arrietty", the latest animated feature film from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Instead of the venerable creator of such films as "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away" helming the project he has handed the reigns to first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi worked behind the scenes and Ghibli for years, working as an in-between animator and key animator on such films as "Princess Mononoke", "My Neighbors the Yamadas", "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle". Having apprenticed on such contemporary classics he seems to be the perfect person to take Studio Ghibli into the future. But what does "The Borrower Arrietty" represent? A move forward or a move back for the revered 26-year-old animation house?

Hayao Miyazaki has always been a fan of children's literature from around the world. One just has to look at his 2004 film "Howl's Moving Castle" which was based on a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones. With that in mind it's easy to see why "The Borrowers" drew his attention. Not only is it set in the kind of idyllic European landscape that Miyazaki used for "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Porco Rosso", but it also features all the components for a classic Miyazaki feature. First there is the plucky female heroine, Arrietty, who like her cinematic sisters Nausicca, Kiki, Princess Mononoke and Chihiro, possesses determination and pioneering spirit. Like all Miyazaki leading ladies Arrietty is less concerned with the decisions of the grown-ups around her. She's not impudent or disrespectful of her parents, but at her core she takes council from one person... herself. "The Borrower Arrietty" also holds it's won kind of environmental message. Arrietty's family belong to a people who are in danger of extinction. We learn that once there were thousands of miniature Borrowers like Pod, Homily and Arrietty. Some even used to share the nooks and crannies of the country house with the family; but slowly the number of Borrowers have dwindled. Human beings, the true villains in the Miyazaki mythos, have rooted out and marginalized the Borrowers so that now Arrietty can't recall the last time she saw another of her kind. And while "The Borrower Arrietty" doesn't feature the fantastical flying machines that careen through so many Miyazaki films it does feature some of the most ingenious miniature designs created by Arrietty's father Pod. A scene early in the film in which he and Arrietty head up into the house via a maze of tiny passages and ladders constructed from nails, staples, thumb tacks and string can easily stand with the best moments in Miyazaki's, or his Ghibli partner Isao Takahata's, ouevre.

So why, if "The Borrower Arrietty" represents such a perfect installment in the Miyazaki continuum, did he just not direct the film himself? Well, fans of the 70-year-old animator know, that despite his famously workaholic tendencies, that he has been threatening to retire since the completion of "Princess Mononoke" back in 1997. We will probably never see a fully retired Miyazaki, but even he knows that in this new century he needs to begin to foster the talents of Ghibli's many animators, and push some of them to the fore. Miyazaki grumbled at the idea of his own son Goro helming the studio's "Tales of Earthsea", but Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been so steeped in all things Ghibli that it makes sense for him to take a stab at the animation style that made his sensei so loved around the world. That's the one problem with "The Borrower Arrietty".

Yonebayashi takes the task of directing Miyazaki's script seriously, very seriously, so that instead of forwarding the creative legacy of Studio Ghibli he ends up simply aping its founder. The sun dappled landscapes sometimes go beyond beautiful to being kitschy, the usual tuneful Joe Hisaishi score has been replaced with the saccharine sweet songs of French harpist Cécile Corbel. Everything on screen seems to scream "Tradition". This of course is in no way a deal breaker for Studio Ghibli fans, including me. It's hard to be objective about Miyazaki and Studio Bhibli as it has come to represent the cinematic equivalent of a macaroni and cheese or a warm blanket for people like me. There is definitely a comfort in a Miyazaki/ Ghibli film. Still with the landscape of anime continuing to evolve, especially in the films of Ghibli rival Studio 4°C, it's getting more and more difficult to adhere to the idea that Studio Ghibli represents the apex of Japanese animation. We're never going to see a Ghibli director produce a film as wild as say Masaaki Yuasa's "Mind Game", but I think Yonebayashi should have approached Miyazaki's charming script with the spirit of experimentation exhibited in the work of Ghibli's Isao Takahata, a man who isn't afraid to mix up styles and moods in a single film. Maybe with that approach "The Borrower Arrietty" could have gone from being a very nice variation of the Miyazaki formula to being a project that would signal the future of the studio.


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