The Clock family are four-inch-tall people who live anonymously in another family's residence, borrowing simple items to make their home. Life changes for the Clocks when their daughter, Arrietty (Saoirse Ronan), is discovered.
It may be heretical to criticise Studio Ghibli, Japan’s most venerable animation house, but its latest production, Arrietty, is a very slender, minor work.
Indeed it’s difficult to see why Ghibli’s maestro Hayao Miyazaki was attracted to the source material, Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers, which inspired a 1997 live action film of the same title produced by England’s Working Title.
Miyazaki, who’s just turned 70, developed and co-wrote the screenplay but handed the directing chores to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, an animator who’d worked on all Ghibli’s productions since 1997’s Princess Mononoke, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.
The premise in both movies is the same, focusing on a family of miniature folk who live under the floorboards of a house from which they steal, or borrow, food and other stuff.
But the animated production jettisons almost all the nutty fantasy elements which made the British film so enjoyable as a clever cross between Home Alone and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Instead the narrative is a gentle, humourless, uncomplicated tale of friendship in an alien environment. There are very few dramatic interludes and Miyazaki’s trademark environmental concerns are clumsily woven into the story.
Arrietty ranks alongside Miyazaki’s previous film, Ponyo, as a small-scale entertainment which is likely to appeal chiefly to young children; there is little to enthuse or intrigue teens and unaccompanied adults.
Madman is releasing two versions: the original Japanese with subtitles and an English dub which features an impressive cast (the subject of this review).
The rather vapid heroine is 13-year-old Tom Thumb-sized Arrietty (perkily voiced by Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her stern father Pod (Mark Strong) and worry-wart mother Homily (Olivia Colman) in the bowels of a rambling old house outside Tokyo.
When pa takes the girl upstairs on her first 'borrowing" – a cube of sugar and tissues are the desired objects – she’s spotted by 12-year-old Sho (Tom Holland). Their journey is akin to mountaineering and is impressively drawn.
Sho is resting before he has a heart operation and is being cared for by his elderly aunt Sadako (Phyllida Law) and her housekeeper Haru (Geraldine McEwan).
Gradually a friendship develops between Arrietty and the lonely Sho, although her parents had warned her that humans are dangerous. Sho offers to protect her but Pod decides the family must look for a new home elsewhere.
The villain in the UK film was a blustering lawyer (played by John Goodman) who was plotting to demolish the borrowers’ house and build a block of apartments. Here the villain is the sour-faced Haru, who is aware of the little people dwelling below and concocts a plan to get rid of them. But Haru is a caricature, akin to the evil witch in a pantomime, and there is little sense of dread from her direction or from a marauding crow or grumpy cat.
According to the production notes, Miyazaki sees the threat to his borrowers as a parable for modern society as he foresees the imminent end of the era of mass consumption amid struggling world economies. That’s drawing a very long bow, in my view, despite one character in the film observing that many species are extinct of endangered.
The animation is typical Miyazaki: Characters possess very few features but objects such as furniture, flowers, leaves and insects are drawn in loving detail using a palette of water colours. A 'mini-earthquake" which shakes and partly destroys the wee folks’ home is imaginatively staged.
The voice work generally is as professional as you’d expect although Strong’s Pod is saddled with the most stilted dialogue, not helped by his monotone delivery.
Cécile Corbel's score has a pleasant Celtic lilt but the title song is syrupy and anodyne.