It could be said that Studio Ghibli is Japan’s answer to Walt Disney Studios. I would disagree. Arrietty, the production company’s latest creation, possibly has more emotional depth and intricate aesthetic detail than the average output of its American counterpart. If you’ve never seen a Ghibli film before, you could do far worse than test the waters with this one. In a nutshell: a skilfully rendered re-interpretation of the classic Borrowers story, in which all eyes are on a young, brave female protagonist.
The Clock family, consisting of Arrietty, her neurotic mother, and a strong but mostly silent father, are all approximately four inches and reside beneath an old house in the country. Believing themselves to be perhaps the last of their kind, they get by through ‘borrowing’ a little of what they need from ‘human beans’. In the course of the film, an unexpected friendship that develops between Arrietty and a young but ailing human boy called Sho, debut director Hiromasa Yonebayashi carefully and successfully develops the principal characters.
Veteran Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki lends his talents to the screenplay, though ironically it is the lack of dialogue within the first fifteen minutes of the film which is so impressive. Nuances of personality and emotion are conveyed through other means than the spoken word: this is film-making at its grass-roots best. Keeping to the spirit of Mary Norton’s original work but not faithfully reproducing it, Arrietty may seem visually European, but it contains many of the typical Ghibli tropes; a canny cat, an even cannier and scheming older woman, and a subtext of ecological concerns.
Achingly beautiful scenery is perfectly complemented by a soundtrack which soars and then completely disappears for dramatic effect. Whilst the repeated use of a certain ballad does raise the sugar content, this is one of only a few critiques that could be made. Another is that intriguing minor characters, including the aforementioned cat, perhaps don’t get enough screen time.
Covering female empowerment and the subtle beauty of nature all within ninety-four minutes, Arrietty is more than just a foreign children’s cartoon – it’s this summer’s best alternative for the cinema-goer with mainstream fatigue.