Studio Ghibli’s THE BORROWERS Review

     August 20, 2010

The release of a Studio Ghibli animated film is always a hotly anticipated event in Japan. The animation studio, whose head Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) is regarded as the “Walt Disney of Japan,” has been enchanting audiences worldwide since the premiere of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. Its latest film, The Borrowers, the work of long-time animator/first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, bowed recently in Japan. Released over a holiday weekend, the film racked up approximately $15.5 million in ticket sales out of 447 screens and secured 1st place at the box office. The movie is based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers, the first in her five-book series chronicling the adventures of a diminutive family who make their life underneath the floorboards of a large house by borrowing small items from the big people. The film is a breezy, fanciful work which lives up to the Studio Ghibli banner. For the full review, hit the jump.

Borrowers is largely faithful to the original novel, the only major difference being that the setting is changed from England to Japan. The titular Arrietty is a 14 year old “tiny person” who lives under the floorboards of an old house in western Tokyo with her father, Pod, and mother, Homily. Their peaceful, if isolated, life is dramatically changed when the ever-curious Arrietty accidentally allows herself to be seen by Sho, a sickly but well-intentioned 12 year old boy who has come to live with his Great Aunt Sadako in advance of undergoing major heart surgery. The fledgling friendship between the two lonely children causes Haru the housekeeper to become aware of the borrowers’ existence. Haru’s insistence on capturing the borrowers forces the family to choose between staying in their well-established home or leaving for the uncertainty of the great outdoors.

Ghibli enthusiasts might fret over the absence of Miyazaki in the director’s chair but, as far as the artistry of the film is concerned, their worries are unfounded. Director Yonebayashi utilizes different styles of animation in order to immerse the audience into Arrietty’s world. From her perspective, all 10 cm of it, the expanse of the human world is almost too vast to properly comprehend. Accordingly, all establishing shots of the house or its surrounding garden are drawn in an Impressionistic water color style, blending the details together and leaving a feeling of a vastness which can never be fully comprehended. Yonebayashi also uses disparate artistic styles to create a stark contrast between the human and borrower worlds. The human kitchen, as seen by the borrowers, is drawn with such detail that it almost appears photo-realistic. Conversely, Arrietty’s home is full of bright colors and is brimming with life and imagination.

Indeed, the creativity the film shows in constructing the borrowers’ world deserves special recognition. A small fish hook becomes a sturdy grappling hook, a medium-sized rock becomes the weight for a makeshift elevator and, most ingeniously, double-sided tape enables Pod to climb a table leg like a miniaturized Spiderman. Admittedly, Yonebayashi falls short of Miyazaki’s sterling standard but these flashes of inspiration stand as proof of the first-timer’s future potential.

The film also benefits from a strong cast of voice talent. The supporting cast handles their one trait characters quite well imbuing Sho, Pod and Homily with gentleness, stability and fretfulness, respectively. The most complex character is Arrietty who is played by Mirai Shida, the latest teen sensation in Japan. Shida fills Arrietty with all the optimisim, fear, spunkiness and longing of adolescence and succeeds in making her the heart of the movie’s emotional arc.

The story and characters in The Borrowers lack the gravity and complexity to for it to be considered on par with Ghibli works like Spirited Away or Grave of the Fireflies but its fearless heroine and creative animation should charm audiences all the same. The American release date of Borrowers has not yet been set, however it is a smart bet that Walt Disney Pictures will distribute a dubbed version of the film in advance of the winter awards season.

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