Saturday, 6 August 2011

Film Review - Arrietty.

Year: 2010.
Studio: Studio Ghibli.
Language: English.

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Mark Strong, Olivia Colman, Geraldine McEwan.

It's difficult to not love Studio Ghibli film. From the magical bathhouse of Spirited Away to the Cat Kingdom of The Cat Returns, to the windswept city of Kiki's Delivery Service. However, it's safe to say a number of their films are far from child-friendly: Princess Mononoke is surprisingly violent for a PG film, and Grave of the Fireflies holds a reputation to sending people into a deep depression. The company's last UK theatrical release, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is by far their more child-focused film, and this year’s work, Arrietty, seems to find the right balance between children and adults, making for a truly excellent family film.

The story, based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers novels, follows the Clock family's only daughter Arrietty, who lives with her father Pod and mother Homily underneath the floorboards on an old house. There, they borrow small items such as sugar cubes and tissues which the human residents will not notice are missing. When a boy named Shō comes to the house to rest before an operation, Arrietty is spotted by him. Raised to believe that humans are dangerous, Arrietty finds herself torn between her home life and the strange human who insists on befriending her.

The key to Arrietty's success is the portrayal of its eponymous heroine. Studio Ghibli's films are ripe with effective female leads, such as Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). Arrietty stands among the best of them. A curious, excitable teenager, she understands the lessons taught to her by Pod, yet is also willing to act on her own initiative: when she sees a pair of rats on her first borrowing trip with her father, she tells him that she could defend herself using a newly-obtained safety pin in place of a sword. Pod cautions her, however, that it is often better to avoid looking for trouble than go looking for it. This lesson is put to the test as Arrietty interacts with the dogged Shō, who represents the dangers of humans for the Borrowers and yet is also the most frail of them. Saoirse Ronan does a fantastic job at bringing her to life, capturing the hesitant inquisitiveness that defines her.

It's not just Arrietty who is well-developed: the entire Clock family is well-rounded, giving a genuine sense that the family is united not only by love, but by being, as they believe, the last Borrowers in the world. Pod is accepting of his daughter's curiosity while at the same time trying to reign her in and make her the skilled Borrower they needs her to be, while Homily is protective to the point of overbearing, but cares for her family and wants them all to be safe in what is a dangerous world. This is helped by Mark Strong, who's calm performance as Pod makes him both kindly and intimidating when angry with Arrietty. Olivia Colman's Homily is suitably motherly, which makes it disappointed when the script gives her little to do but shriek and faint as the third act arrives.

Of course, Studio Ghibli films are renowned for their high-quality animation, and their latest offering is no different. After last year's Ponyo, it is nice to see a return to a more traditional animation style. The visuals of Arrietty are striking, with some great use of household objects as methods of transportation: crooked nails serve as walkways and cables as climbing ropes, which the scenes in the garden are filled with insects and animals which seem looming and alien when seen from the viewpoint of the miniscule Borrowers. Of course, the world changes to something more familiar when while with Shō and the other humans, and it's great fun to try spot the route that Arrietty and Pod have taken on their outings during these scenes.

The remaining voice actors are definitely a mixed bag, with Geraldine McEwan giving a fantastic performance as the housekeeper Haru. While Phyllida Law does well as Sadako, there is simply not enough of her to make her memorable. Unfortunately, it is Tom Holland's vocal work as Shō which serves as the weak link in the casting, giving a monotonous and often grating performance. It is easy to see why he played the boy in such a way, especially as you learn more about his illness, but it can still be painful to listen to.

Regardless, Holland's performance is far from a reason to avoid the English dub, which is otherwise solidly scripted and performed, underlined by a fantastic score Cécile Corbel. While the film is not going to reinvent the anime landscape, it is a simply gorgeous film with a bittersweet ending, albeit one that is a little too open-ended for some.

Rating: 7/10.
If you liked this, you might like:  Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro.

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