Arrietty -- Film Review

There are fairies in the garden in Studio Ghibli’s latest classy anime targeted at kids.

ROME -- Though its Studio Ghibli pedigree doesn’t lie and this finely crafted anime film exudes the charming otherworldliness of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who co-scripted “Arrietty” remains essentially a film for children. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a top Ghibli animator who did some of the breathtaking work on Miyazaki’s “Ponyo By the Sea,” makes a very dignified directing debut here, ably drawing viewers into the friendship between a human boy and a girl the size of Tom Thumb. The fresh and simple story will win its share of young fans, though it lacks the disturbing adult elements might have attracted older audiences.

Based on Mary Norton’s famed fantasy novels The Borrowers set in 1950’s England, the story was adapted by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and put on a shelf for some 40 years before being dusted off for production. The Borrowers, aka the Little People, are a vanishing race of fairy-like creatures who live under the kitchen floor of a house in the country. The 14-year-old Arrietty, who is hardly bigger than a teacup, lives with her father Pod and mother Homily and helps them survive by borrowing/stealing odd bits of food from the elderly spinster upstairs.

One day Sho, a little boy soon to have a heart operation, comes to the idyllic house to rest. His loneliness and sadness vanish when he accidentally catches a glimpse of Arrietty in the garden. He promises to protect her, but actually sets off a chain of events that force the Borrowers family to embark on a dangerous move to a new home. Nonetheless, the contact between Sho and Arrietty, fleeting as it is, touches the heartstrings with gentle yearning.

Yonebayashi directs with a sure but delicate hand, creating a delightful world devoid of traditional magic, but magical nonetheless. It is no surprise that the kind and selfless Sho (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki) falls for lovely, courageous Arietty (Mirai Shida), who unlike her parents is unafraid of humans and cats. Both make fine role models for younger viewers.

Though strangely devoid of humor, the film has an enormous amount of visual charm. Animators went wild designing a miniscule but homey underground universe, and the scene when Arrietty’s father takes the girl through the woodwork on her first “borrowing” mission upstairs is pure adventure.

Nowhere is there a sense of real danger to the Borrowers. Even Sho’s potentially fatal heart condition is underplayed. Though this will keep the nightmares away from the little people in the audience, it robs the film of tension.

The English subtitles on the print screened at the Rome Film Festival were marred by a recurrent mistranslation of “human beings” as “human beans,” lending the film its only (and inadvertent) comic touch.

Production company: Studio Ghibli Cast: Mirai Shida, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shinobu Otake, Keiko Takeshita, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Tomokazu Miura, Kirin Kiki
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Based on a novel by Mary Norton
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Executive producer: Koji Hoshino
Production designers: Yoji Takeshige, Noboru Yoshida
Music: Cecile Corbel
Animation supervisor: Megumi Kagawa, Akihiko Yamashita
Editor: Rie Matsubara
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 94 minutes