Arrietty review

It’s the latest animated feature from Studio Ghibli, and it’s rather lovely. Here’s our review of the gentle, charming Arrietty…

Based on The Borrowers by British author Mary Norton, Arrietty is the latest box of delights from the Japanese masters of animation, Studio Ghibli. It’s a slight tale of tiny people struggling for survival in a world dominated by the towering hulk of humans. Arrietty is a young girl of such diminutive stature that she can barely reach above a cat’s paw, and could conceivably be eaten by a rat. She lives with her equally tiny father, Pod, and her mother, Homily, in a makeshift hovel located deep beneath the floorboards of a sprawling period house.

The microscopic world of improbably small folk is something that filmmakers have struggled to bring to the screen in the past, whether it’s in previous adaptations of The Borrowers, the relatively low-budget Incredible Shrinking Man, or humorous offerings like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. In Arrietty, its creators have understood the advantages that animation has over live-action, even in this modern age of computer animation.

We give traditional animation a certain leeway that we don’t afford a live-action film. When presented in a hand-drawn or painted form, our eye accepts a tiny household that hangs up postage stamps as art, or uses map pins as swords. This acceptance is due in large part to Ghibli’s typically sumptuous attention to detail, where things that lesser artists would overlook is presented with an engaging truth.

Just look at the moment where Arrietty’s father applies double-sided sticky tape to his hands and feet, and begins climbing up the wooden vertical of a worktop. With a combination of detailed animation and great sound design, we get a sense of both the danger of the situation, and the adhesion of the tape. It’s lovely.

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But then there’s the broader narrative to consider, which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t quite as satisfactory as the visuals. A new arrival at the house is Shō, a young man with a heart condition that renders him almost entirely isolated from both friends and his parents in particular, who appear to be too busy to give him the attention he needs.

Holed up in bed with little more than a portly cat and some books for company, he eventually finds an unlikely friend in the tiny Arrietty. And although the Borrowers have long since learned to be wary of humans, he proves to be an important and faithful ally.

There’s something of a deficiency, though, in the way that the story of Arrietty is told. In terms of narrative pace, it’s rather too languid, yet not enough time is spent making the young boy a rounded character. Had this been achieved, the events that occur later in the film would have had greater impact, making the movie more memorable as a result.

Potential threats are everywhere, but Arrietty plays for light whimsy rather than menace. Even in moments of genuine peril – when the Borrowers are menaced by a mean-spirited maid, for example, the tension is undercut by a light tone and soothing music.

This, for me at least, was unfortunate, since Arrietty could have been so much more than the pleasant diversion that it is. In its favour, there are the gorgeous visuals we’ve come to love and expect from a Ghibli film, and some quite remarkable sound design.

It appears that making a bold individual statement wasn’t a goal of Arietty’s makers. This was director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s first feature, and it feels as though he and the rest of Arrietty’s makers have expended the greater of their creative energies in making this feel like a classic Ghibli film in the mould of founder and master, Hayao Miyazaki. In some respects, they’ve managed it. There’s the lovely, chubby feline, not dissimilar to Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. And later, there’s an adventurous, free-spirited character apparently modelled on a character from Princess Mononoke, a similarity that led one fellow writer to joke that it was the same actor cast in another role.

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Despite the best efforts of Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan and Tom Holland, the slightly stilted English voice dubbing doesn’t help matters either. Nor does the folky soundtrack, which sounds like Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac.

In spite of all this, Arrietty is a lovely, refreshing film. If regarded from a purely visual standpoint, it’s absolutely beautiful. But without the drama of my personal favourite Ghibli movie, Castle In The Sky, or the unforgettable characterisation of Porco Rosso or My Neighbor Totoro, it’s not quite the masterpiece it could have been.

Then again, as someone at the screening pointed out, even a lesser Ghibli movie is better than almost any other animation studio could muster, and Arrietty is, taken on its own terms, a lovely, captivating little film, even if it can’t match the lyrical majesty of Miyazaki himself.


4 out of 5