Sumptuously decked out in all departments except a fully worked script, "The Borrowers" is a top-notch family film that welds English quaintness and eccentricity with high-tech effects.

Sumptuously decked out in all departments except a fully worked script, “The Borrowers” is a top-notch family film that welds English quaintness and eccentricity with high-tech effects. Based on Mary Norton’s kidtomes about a family of four-inch-high “little people” who live under the floorboards of a British house, Polygram’s $30 million entry in the effects-driven market looks set for bright biz locally in the buildup to Christmas as an entertaining alternative to imported blockbusters. The pic’s chances Stateside, where it goes out Feb. 13, will depend on Polygram getting a clear field and tweaking U.S. auds’ curiosity with a fresh enough spin and lots of promo coin.

Norton’s books were written from the early 1950s to ’80s. In 1973, NBC aired a 90-minute “Hallmark Hall of Fame” adaptation starring Judith Anderson, Eddie Albert and Tammy Grimes, with music by Rod McKuen. Twenty years later, the BBC aired two six-part, half-hour series with Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton in the lead roles, produced by Working Title Television. (That version aired on TNT in the U.S.)

Five years ago, Working Title first thought of making a bigscreen version, and the project finally got off the ground with British director Peter Hewitt (“Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” “Tom and Huck”) involved and Polygram’s big-buck backing.

Eponymous family — so-called because they “borrow” items from the house under which they live — consists of father Pod (Jim Broadbent), mother Homily (Celia Imre) and kids Arrietty (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton).

Lively opening, shaped as an adventure to intro the little ‘uns’ world, has their cover almost blown when the house’s tenants return unexpectedly while they’re on the lam in the kitchen. Though the movie assumes audiences are up to speed on the Borrowers’ background, the sequence, almost a mini-movie in itself, is a confident demo of the pic’s ambitions, raising the bar immediately on an f/x level.

Paper-thin plot emerges with the introduction of the bad guy, Ocious P. Potter (John Goodman), an avaricious lawyer-cum-realtor whose motto is “Today, Potter’s Apartments; tomorrow, Pottersville.” Discovering the owner of the house has died, and her will vanished, Potter decides to evict the tenants and demolish the cottage-like abode to make room for a block of luxury apartments.

In short order, the Borrowers unwillingly ally themselves with the tenants’ son, Pete (Bradley Pierce), who’s forged a friendship with Arrietty, to spike Potter’s plans. This involves finding and absconding with the will, and getting to City Hall before 4 p.m. Saturday, when Potter is due to register the house for demolition. Majority of the pic is an extended chase, with the little people pursued under the floorboards, venturing into the “outside world,” and then to a milk-bottling factory, with the indestructible Potter always close behind.

While the 1990s TV series was stronger on character and made clever of use of effects done on a limited budget, the movie version largely goes for an in-your-face, extended demo of f/x-driven, cartoony antics, powered by Harry Gregson-Williams’ splashy symphonic score.

Given that some of the dialogue is indistinct beneath the effects track, and what can be heard is light on sharp one-liners, the decision to keep things moving was a wise one. Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang’s work has an attractively offhand quality that is never dwelt on for its sake and still leaves you wondering how they did it long after the trick has passed.

Biggest change from the TV series is the addition of U.S. elements: though pic is clearly set somewhere in England, Goodman’s character and the house’s tenants are American and the local town hall, for example, is called City Hall.

The production design goes for a look that largely is ’50s toy-town Britain, but includes artifacts, often cleverly adapted (like Goodman’s cellular phone), that date from the ’20s to ’90s.

P.d. Gemma Jackson, plus lensers John Fenner and Trevor Brooker, rate deep bows here, as well as for the pic’s strong color scheme, in which blues and whites are absent, underlining the pastel-washed period look. Costume designer Marie France’s duds are similarly on the money, with the Borrowers dressed in a variety of adapted knickknacks, and Joan Hills’ makeup and hair design inventively wacky.

It’s on the non-tech side that the movie falls short. With character development thin, and the script strictly workaday, there’s little chance to really identify with the Borrowers and their plight at the hands of the “beings” in the outside world. Pic also stumbles badly in the finale, set in a City Hall storeroom, which tries for a Borrowers-against-the-world uplifting finale, but by then doesn’t have enough emotional beans in its account to really pay off.

Goodman, as a kind of human Sylvester the Cat, is fine as the hissable villain, and 13-year-old newcomer Newbigin is very confident as Arrietty. British vets Jim Broadbent and Celia Imrie are solid but weakly projected as the parents, and Pierce is strong as the kid who teams with the little people. Hugh Laurie’s diffident cop gets some of the best lines when teamed with the blustering Goodman.

The Borrowers

British

Production

A Polygram (in U.K. and U.S.) release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation of a Working Title production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Rachel Talalay. Executive producer, Walt deFaria. Co-producers, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin. Directed by Peter Hewitt. Screenplay, Gavin Scott, John Camps, based on the novels by Mary Norton.

Crew

Camera (prints by Technicolor), John Fenner, Trevor Brooker; editor, David Freeman; additional editing, Annie Kocur; music, Harry Gregson-Williams; score producer, Hans Zimmer; production design, Gemma Jackson; supervising art director, Jim Morahan; costume design, Marie France; makeup-hair design, Joan Hills; sound (Dolby Digital), David Stephenson; visual effects supervisor, Peter Chiang; stunt coordinator, Jim Dowdall; assistant director, Gareth Tandy; second unit direction, John Roberts; line producer, Mary Richards; casting, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Empire 1 theater, London, Oct. 19, 1997. Running time: 83 min.

With

Ocious P. Potter - John Goodman Pod Clock - Jim Broadbent Exterminator Jeff - Mark Williams Officer Steady - Hugh Laurie Pete Lender - Bradley Pierce Arrietty Clock - Flora Newbigin Peagreen Clock - Tom Felton Spiller - Raymond Pickard Homily Clock - Celia Imrie Joe Lender - Aden Gillett Victoria Lende - Doon Mackichan City Hall clerk - Ruby Wax
With: Andrew Dunford, Bob Goody, Patrick Monkton, Dick Ward, George Yiassoumi.

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