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No small feat
Arrietty, a tiny person living under the floorboards and ‘borrowing’ items from the humans above, first appears as a flash of red in the long-grass half seen out of the corner of a child’s eye. Shô, a sick boy who has come away from the city to live with his aunt, is fascinated by rumours of ‘little people’ in the house and he grows more and more interested hoping (in his own shy way) to protect them from the villainous housekeeper. Based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, this animation’s plot and setting feel more European than the majority of previous Ghibli offerings. The film is both an unexpected take on the children’s book and another surprising turn from Studio Ghibli: fans of either the book or great writer/director Hayao Miyazaki won’t be disappointed.
Arrietty is interested in curiosity in all forms, from the obsessive detective work of the housekeeper to the pre-pubescent embarrassment found in the relationship between Shô and Arrietty. Shô gapes wide-eyed at Arrietty as she picks bouquet sized bay-leaves at her own level, while the animals, whether ants scampering over a block of sugar or grasshoppers squabbling over a dropped flower, show an equal wonder for the world around them . The imagination displayed in Arrietty is impressive, establishing a unique set of rules and scales for its imaginary world: early on, Arrietty’s mother is pouring tea from a miniature kettle, drop by drop. When her mother tells her, ‘I do hope your father wasn’t caught in the downpour,’ we are all the more concerned for having been acquainted with what counts for a raindrop in the world of the borrowers; while not dangerous per se, a rain storm for Arrietty equates to being pelted with several gelatinous cups of tea. The film’s imaginative reconstructions of everyday objects at times resemble a series of Russian dolls - when Arrietty and her father clamber out of the exit to a secret passageway (a fireplace in a doll’s house), there was a genuine murmur of amazement from children in the cinema and incredulous whispers of ‘Where are they now?’. Children are greeted with the gentle surprise of discovering new equally peculiar environments within the wider but economically drawn house and gardens.
Experiencing the film in cinematic surround sound really brings its incredible soundscape to the forefront. In a striking moment, Arrietty steps out onto a kitchen surface. For the borrowers sound is subtly distorted: the creaking of burdened shelves, the noise of the metal pipes behind the wall or the sound of little-shoes across a makeshift staircase of nails are all amplified and, as in the case of a grandfather clock, can sound monstrously oppressive (although speech is miraculously heard without difficulty in borrower/human interaction). The dubbing too was excellent. There was very little of the over-earnest voice-acting anime fans have learnt to loathe. Will Arnett was especially well cast as the asocial Shô. Having praised the intricacies of the soundscape the ‘celtic’ flutey music could be a little intrusive at times, but this is a niggle.
This film isn’t a goggly eyed big/small adventure: the remit of The Borrowers or Honey I Shrunk The Kids was to evoke perpetual excitement by unveiling blown-up miniature after miniature, each more potentially dangerous than the last: giant falling milk bottles, killer bugs etc. etc. The chief seduction of Arrietty is not just the wow-factor of exploring a smaller world. Arrietty hopes to make its world not progressively stranger but more and more familiar. Having been invited into their world the danger is not cartoon but immediate and emotional. Fear is not the only emotion the borrowers associate with being seen by humans; when Shô sees Arrietty for the first time, she pulls up a tissue to cover herself, blushing, as if he had caught her naked. In place of terror and heart-racing danger, Arrietty offers serious and emotional peril for every character and expects an audience to be genuinely concerned, and we are. It might be worth seeing the film on a Sunday afternoon, just to make sure there are children around, so that you can gasp and whisper along with them.