Arrietty is a borrower, a miniature person existing within the finer details of our world. Alongside her parents, she sustains herself by borrowing from their human neighbours. Upon the arrival of curious new human boy Sho, Arrietty must learn what it means to grow up and to stay safe in the wake of mounting hardships and danger.
Studio Ghibli are, these days, held in a very awkward place; a frequent critical darling, they sit in the same pantheon as Pixar and yet, unfortunately, struggle to return the statistics of their more mainstream competitors. Arrietty is the studio’s newest offering and is to date Ghibli’s best shot at becoming the complete package outside of their native Japan.
A re-telling of Mary Norton’s classic tale The Borrowers, Arrietty drips in the beauty and charm so splendidly typical of Ghibli’s projects. The film offers an enticing glimpse into a stunningly realised, wonderfully inviting, parallel world; comfortably similar and yet also excitingly alien, with even the most innocuous items, such as the humble sugar-cube, given a whole new lease of life. In a glorious unveiling sequence, the titular heroine gasps in awe as her father abseils down a kitchen cabinet, veritably scaling Everest itself. The whole world is presented from a new perspective that, while minute in essence, has all the tingles of discovery and scale of adventure offered by even the biggest of action blockbusters. At the end of the film, you will be left either wanting to be a Borrower or searching for your very own mini-inhabitants at home.
As a continuation of Ghibli’s personal creed, Arrietty is a children’s film not solely aimed at that age bracket. Whereas too much of children’s entertainment in recent years has been focused on flogging the importance of morals and the significance of right and wrong — ultimately serving up a glowing plate of sunshiny happiness — Arrietty instead follows a surprising path of emotional realism in spite of its fantasy roots and presentation. The whole film is an exercise in subtlety, weaving the relatively simple narrative around the two main protagonists as they deal with the imperfections and hardships in their respective lives. It is around this core of realism that the beauty and charm of the film rotates; Sho explaining his dire circumstances amidst a glorious pasture, Arrietty coming to terms with the dangers of the world on the backdrop of a flowing river, the sheer breathtaking beauty of it all expertly juxtaposed against the difficulties of growing up.
For all the things Arrietty is, there is one key thing it is not: a classic. With neither the narrative complexity or pomp of Princess Mononoke nor the sheer wondrous charm of Spirited Away, it is unlikely to join the echelons of Ghibli’s greats. Further to its detriment is the so-so voice acting; that this is Tom Holland’s (Sho) first role is unsurprising. The writing is irritatingly typical of a children’s film; no more risqué than an extra slice of bacon at breakfast. While the enticingly foreign figure of Spiller hints at a Borrower’s world much bigger and diverse than what is shown, the character’s insistence on speaking their minds in the most simplistic terms is nothing short of disappointing.
In much the same way as its predecessor Tales From Earthsea, Arrietty is intrinsically weakened through being an adaption. While not recreating the original story word-for-word, the film is still stuck in a rut, restricted by the fact that it must abide by its source material. Often there is a hunger for some of the classic Ghibli imagination and character kookiness that cannot be filled. Yet, this may end up being a positive thing — being based on a property already well-known in the Western world, Arrietty is set to stand a good chance at handsome returns outside of Japan.
Arrietty is a wonderfully composed poem about the complexities of growing up while making sense of and finding your place in the world. While the rest of this summer’s movies compete to be the biggest rock ‘em sock ’em 3D action fest, Arrietty offers a chilled, charming and rewarding alternative.