Back in the dim and distant past of 1992 I was just getting back into the world of Doctor Who when another magical television series arrived to enchant me: the BBC adaptation of The Borrowers, with the fabulous cast of Ian Holm as Pod, Penelope Wilton as Homily and Rebecca Callard as Ariety. With this fond childhood memory, I was delighted to hear that Studio Ghibli were going to have a go at adapting Mary Norton’s The Borrowers as well, a combination of a classic of childhood fantasy fiction and the best animation studio in the world.
Perhaps learning their lesson from the backlash from fans and the author of Tales from Earthsea, this time round the studio went with a much more faithful adaption, closer in many ways to the original books than the BBC version. The only major addition is Niya the cat, and the stronger characterisation of Arrietty herself, both of which are exactly what we would expect from Studio Ghibli.
The studio is known for strong female characters, so Arrietty is adventurous, daring and resourceful. As for the cat, that’s a lovely little subplot that provides a gentle feelgood parallel with the main thrust of the story: sometimes enemies can be befriended, and may not be your enemies at all.
The two main characters are Arrietty and Sho. Like Ponyo there is a hint of Romeo and Juliet about their friendship, and also like Ponyo it plays out entirely innocently. Both films feature characters from two worlds that are supposed to remain always separated, and when they crash together there are catastrophic consequences. And the key to both films is that the consequences themselves do not indicate that the joining together of the two worlds is in itself a bad thing.
Just like Ponyo then, this can be understood as an anti-xenophobia parable. The Borrowers see the humans as dangerous and destructive. Sho unwittingly confirms that suspicion, doing harm with kindness. It’s all a bit tragic. Then we have Haru, who is the only human who lives up to the Borrowers’ opinions of them, at least to the extent of deliberate malicious actions. But for a short while the two worlds unite and human and Borrower are able to work together, and form a meaningful bond. It can’t last, of course. Nobody has the luxury of Ponyo, to be able to change, in order to fit within a new world. We are back in Princess Mononoke territory, with an insurmountable cultural divide… for the time being.
In other words, Arrietty is a bittersweet masterpiece, a beautiful retelling of a wonderful story. It could have done with slightly better plotting at times, especially when Pod basically drops out of the story while the big drama plays out between Haru, Arrietty and Sho. There is an explanation of sorts, but it’s basically handwaved and enough to leave the viewer with an odd feeling that something has been missed out.
Whatever you think of the plot though, watch this for the stunning animation. We are used to beautiful scenery with Studio Ghibli films. Arrietty brings that down to the miniscule level, finding beauty in everyday objects, like the peg that Arrietty uses to clip up her hair. The garden, seen from the perspective of a Borrower, is stunningly beautiful, and dangerous at the same time.
Unusually, there are two different English language dubs for this. Some of the earlier Ghibli films have an old dub, all of which are best ignored, but this is something different because there is a British dub made by StudioCanal a year before the Disney dub. I can’t say anything about the US version because I haven’t heard it, but the British English dub is fantastic. Amongst the voice cast are Saoirse Ronan (who put in an astonishingly brave performace in The Lovely Bones just a year before this dub), Tom Holland, Olivia Coleman, Phyllida Law and Geraldine McEwan.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 11 in particular are all completely magnificent:
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Tales from Earthsea
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
The trailer below will give readers in the US a flavour of the UK dub. Next time we will be looking at a Studio Ghibli slice of life masterpiece: From Up on Poppy Hill. RP