Things have been super busy lately what with Ception Theatre’s production of Little Bear at the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston in which I played a hunter called Jaeger. We were only performing for three days but plays are time-consuming things and with all the rehearsals, travelling and flyering involved there hasn’t been too much time for blogging. My review of The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time 3D is on the way, as is that of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast which I finally bought on DVD recently but first comes the little matter of a brand new Studio Ghibli film.
Anyone who reads my blog regularly (which is practically no-one) will know that I’ve reviewed three of Mary Norton’s Borrowers books and that I’m a huge animation nutcase. Those two worlds have collided as Japan’s foremost creator of animated family films, Studio Ghibli has chosen to adapt the first book in the series under the title Arrietty, the name of the tiny young heroine. That Studio Ghibli, creators of such classic films as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away and my personal favourite, Princess Mononoke is adapting this classic literary property is a big deal in itself even if studio bigwig Hayao Miyazaki isn’t at the helm, but it’s all the more significant for me given that I too am writing a children’s adventure story about little people living in secret beneath human floorboards.
The film hasn’t seen widespread release in the UK yet but during a recent visit to London’s Barbican Centre revealed I discovered that the film would be showing at the cinema there as part of their season celebrating animation. With the final performance of Little Bear in the bag Astarico and I booked our tickets and set off. What can I say about the Barbican Centre? It’s amazing. The huge, labyrinthine building is packed with entertainment venues, a library, artworks, bars and some very cool mirrors that make you feel like you’ve stepped into an Escher painting. You should definitely check it out if you get the chance and I certainly intend to go back as often as possible. Anyway, the screening in the packed underground cinema felt very prestigious and it was even introduced on stage by Tom Holland, the young actor who provided the voice for the character Sho in the English language dub of the film.
I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s fidelity to Mary Norton’s book. True, the setting has been moved from Leighton Buzzard to Japan but the plot itself is basically the same. Arrietty is a teenage borrower living with her parents in the foundation of a large secluded house. The family survive by ‘borrowing’ the things they need from the house but when a young boy with a heart problem comes to stay in the house and sees Arrietty the family realise they will soon have to leave to be safe.
As you might expect this is a simply gorgeous looking film. The colour and detail in still frames of Arrietty is more aesthetically beautiful than some entire animated films. Ghibli have made the most of the setting and situation, the big house and its charmingly overgrown grounds recall such films as The Secret Garden and Ghibli’s own My Neighbour Totoro and the invisible world inhabited by the miniature family is teeming with detail in every scene. Ghibli have followed Mary Norton’s lead and brought us a world with clothes pegs doubling as hair ties, ladders made of staples, and pins employed as swords. The characters all the hit the spot too. Arrietty is exactly the kind of curious bright heroine you’d expect from a Ghibli film, Homily’s amusing materialism is intact, the gentle Sho is very likeable and suspicious housekeeper Haru delivers some chuckle-worthy groaning. Only Pod, here voiced by Mark Strong, seems different from the book, presented as a quiet, stony-faced veteran of borrowing, but it’s nonetheless a very interesting interpretation. The voice cast are strong across the board. As always with English anime dubs you can tell where the actors had difficulty matching the rhythm of the script with the animation but that’s to be expected and the film copes well with it.
The similarities to My Neighbour Totoro are clear throughout, the story of a youngster moving to a rural house and befriending mythic creatures, the gentle pace, the inherent respect for nature in the narrative, but this new film differs in its slightly melancholy tone, another legacy of the book. It’s lovely that the film-makers have preserved the sense of anxiety the Clock family feels about being discovered but their need to remove from the house might not be so convincing to those unfamiliar to the book. In the same fashion Sho’s heart condition is a nice inclusion but nothing really comes of it plot-wise. The only really major departure from the book is the inclusion of Spiller who didn’t appear in the books until the first sequel, but his appearance is welcome.
I suspect the slow pace might not be popular with those looking for something exciting but there are some fun moments that combat this such as an episode with a crow and the sequence in which Sho and Arrietty team up to rescue Homily. Ultimately this is the kind of hypnotic film that beguiles rather than enthrals, lulling us with its vivid imagery and charming central friendship that tastefully hints at something sweetly romantic and is tied up with a simply beautiful soundtrack that sits somewhere between folk and new age. It’s the kind of film you watch to enjoy the beauty of animation and the charm of its timeless concept.
An admirably faithful adaptation that might lack the visual invention of a Miyazaki picture but nonetheless delights from start to finish. Fans of Mary Norton and Studio Ghibli should track down a cinema that is screening this delightful film.