Arrietty Review: Small Wonders

ARRIETTY (U): On General Release Friday 29th July

Studio Ghibli can almost do no wrong. The Japanese studio’s output has been consistent for over 25 years, and while some are better than others, there are no Ghibli films which are actually bad. Arrietty is thankfully no exception as it’s a sumptuous adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic children’s novel, The Borrowers.

What are Borrowers anyway? They’re six inch high people who “borrow” things that won’t be missed from humans. Well, it’s not borrowing, it’s stealing. That’s like breaking into someone’s house to say that you’re only “borrowing” their furniture. And if they’re dependent on humans for their survival, can’t we class them as a sort of urban human parasite? Sounds much less charming now doesn’t it?

Anyway, I digress. Sho is a young boy who moves to an isolated country house to rest before an important heart operation. As he arrives he spots Arrietty, one of the little people, sliding down the stem of flower. We follow Arrietty back to her home where she lives a life in miniature with her neurotic mother and stoic father.

Arrietty is to undertake her first borrowing mission with her father – an attempt to get some tissue paper and a sugar cube. They use all kinds of improvised equipment that turns the adventure into a miniature mountaineering expedition – thread and fishing hooks make serviceable climbing gear; buttons function as lifts; Arrietty’s dad scales a table leg using pieces of double-sided sticky tape.

But while searching for loot in Sho’s bedroom, Arrietty is spotted and they two of them develop a friendship of sorts. Meanwhile, Sho’s nursemaid discovers Arrietty’s home and calls in the exterminators and Arrietty’s parents decide that it’s time to move home for good.

The design has Ghibli’s trademark attention to detail. A kitchen is an echoing cavern, chair and table legs stretching above like gargantuan trees; Arrietty finds a pin which she’s able to use as a sword and Sho’s cat is a terrifying hissing apparition twice the size of a bus.

Liquids also behave differently at Arrietty’s size, tea gloopily slopping out of teapots like a thick treacle and water clinging to her dress in fat globules. It’s this minutia which makes the film wholly engaging and immersive. This detail extends to the sound design too – the reverberation of a clock’s tick sounds like the cocking of a gigantic gun; vibrations to us are like earthquakes to Arrietty’s family.

But it’s Sho and Arrietty’s tentative relationship which is the beating heart of the film, touching on themes of friendship, trust and nature. Unfortunately there’s also a rather ham-fisted environmental message, which is distinctly out of place with the rest of the film’s subtlety but it’s easy to forgive in a film which is full of wonderful little details and well orchestrated flourishes which add up to make a wholly satisfying production brimming with charm and beauty.

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