Studio Ghibli lend their vision to a classic tale for Hiromasa Yonebayashi's Arrietty (2010)
Based upon Mary Norton's 1952 novel 'The Borrowers', Arrietty is the latest colourful export from Studio Ghibli, frequently referred to as the Japanese Disney. After the Little Mermaid-inspired Ponyo (2008) Ghibli once again look to the West for their influence, and first-time director Yonebayashi has delivered a more faithful adaptation of Norton's source than Peter Hewitt's conventional 1997 imagining, which lifted only the original characters and a loose concept for its tale. The story here follows 14-year-old borrower Arrietty (Mirai Shida) as she embarks upon her first venture into the human world, where she makes contact with a human named Shô (Ryûnosuke Kamiki). Borrowers live anonymously under the floorboards, believing all human beans (a charming mispronunciation) to be a threat. But Arrietty is compelled by Shô's kindness and acceptance, and soon struggles with her feelings for the outside world. Meanwhile, housekeeper Haru (Kirin Kiki) seeks to destroy the remaining borrowers...
As always for Ghibli, Arrietty is beautifully animated, and packed with the kind of detail that marks their work as individual. Sadly, Yonebayashi's loyalty to the novel results in an unsatisfying narrative, and scenes often feel protracted to support the 94-minute running time. The biggest problem is that relationships feel underdeveloped, especially the one between Arrietty and Shô, whose medical condition is awkwardly lumped into conversation but never really finds a reason to exist - he's soon undergoing an operation on his heart, but I wonder why we're ever told this information if the film isn't going to do anything with it. It feels like the setup to a pivotal emotional moment which never arrives, and that's a shame. Arrietty's parents - Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and Homily (Shinobu Ohtake) - are well defined, but little more than that. There's a strong sense of a loving family unit, but we never really learn anything about who these people are. Even if it be in the form of plain-faced exposition, can we not explore some of the borrowers ancestry, and establish a universe outside of their four walls?
But maybe this is down to the single-minded structure of the film, which is entirely driven toward the set-piece finale. It feels (yet clearly isn't, because of the novel) like one of those screenplays which figured out the ending first and the story second, and therefore focuses every plot strand on that pre-defined conclusion. Why does the plot strand with the dolls house kitchen exist? So that Haru can later recognize it, and set her plan in motion. Her motivations are hinted toward in the opening scenes, yet they never develop throughout the film. She's an antagonist for the sake of being an antagonist; the plot simply requires one.
The denouement feels like the beginning to an all-new chapter in the Borrower's universe, and likely a more interesting one; it supposes an exciting voyage to a new home, and a path fraught with danger. Arrietty is an attractive diversion, but ultimately proves to be an inconsequential entry into the Ghibli canon; too safe for its own good, its lightweight plot feels like the setup for a tale I'd love to see them tackle in the future. Arrietty 2, anyone?
Note: I saw the film in its original Japanese-language version, but there is an English-language dub screening in select cinemas, with a voice cast including Saoirse Ronan, Will Arnett and Mark Strong.