Old-school, mostly in a good way, the daintily drawn “Arrietty” is the latest feature from Studio Ghibli, whose “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” have made the Japanese production company an international brand. Although written by Ghibli’s top sensei, Hayao Miyazaki, “Arrietty” was helmed by inhouse-trained talent Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who does a fine job of resetting English author Mary Norton’s classic 1952 book “The Borrowers” in Japan. Released locally in 2010, pic already has worn down its shoe leather on the fest circuit and made a tidy $126 million from domestic and offshore grosses, but will be a niche item elsewhere.
Also the author of the source material for “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” Norton was more of a household name a generation ago in Anglophone territories, before children’s fiction was dominated by flashier, darker, wizard-oriented tales. “The Borrowers” formed the basis for a couple of TV series and one feature film, Polygram/Working Title’s 1997 pic of the same name, which starred a transatlantic cast but did only modest biz.
Clearly aware of the risks of releasing Studio Ghibli’s take on the story in a subtitles-averse market, U.K. distributor Optimum has redubbed the pic with an Anglo-Irish cast in time for a summer release, although the Japanese-language version will also go out on a few prints. Disney is skedded to open the pic Stateside in February with a new voice cast including Will Arnett, Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler.
While it relocates the action to a large house on the outskirts of present-day Tokyo rather than post-WWII England, Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa’s screenplay cleaves fairly closely to Norton’s original plot, and even preserves the names of the little people known as the Borrowers. Pod (voiced by Mark Strong in the Anglo-Irish version reviewed) and his wife, Homily (Olivia Colman), along with their 14-year-old daughter, Arrietty (Saoirse Ronan), subsist in their subterranean home by making nighttime raids on the house above them, where elderly femme Sadako (Phyllida Law) dwells with her housekeeper, Haru (Geraldine McEwan). A “borrowed” cube of sugar will last the family many weeks, while a pin will serve as a handy sword. The ingenious use of everyday objects from the human world reps part of the core charm of the story, and Yonebayashi and Co. inventively illustrate this makeshift ethos with hundreds of small background details.
However, it’s a precarious way of life Arrietty and her family live, and when Sadako’s sickly 12-year-old nephew, Sho (Tom Holland), comes to stay and spots Arrietty outside, it looks as if the secretive Borrowers will have to move on, just like their relatives who emigrated there years ago. But Sho means them no harm, and instead befriends Arrietty, revealing to her just how small her own world is. Unfortunately, Haru is on to them as well, and determined to rid the household of “pests.”
Although the Borrowers have rounded eyes and fair skin, their gestures and mannerisms seem very Japanese, which leads to a slight cultural dissonance that will probably be more of a problem for Western auds than for Asian ones. But in terms of marketability in the West, the film lacks the exotic approach to storytelling that made Studio Ghibli’s other pics so compelling. Although beautifully rendered throughout, with delicate, elegantly drawn watercolor-like illustrations, the pic may seem too plain and simple for the oversophisticated tastes of kids in Europe and North America, while Arrietty herself reps a slightly insipid heroine.
Voicework by the Anglo-Irish cast was fine, if perhaps lacking a little in color, which may be more the fault of the original. For the record, the Japanese title, “Karigurashi no Arietty,” simply means “The Borrower Arrietty.”