There is something awe-inspiring about the way in which Studio Ghibli have managed to transform their cult following into a powerful cinematic brand.
There is something awe-inspiring
about the way in which Studio Ghibli have managed to transform their cult
following into a powerful cinematic brand. Indeed, while Studio Ghibli may be
the house that Hayao Miyazaki built with films such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), the power of the Studio Ghibli brand is now
such that even Miyazaki-less minor Ghiblis such as The Cat Returns (2002) and Tales of Earthsea (2006) now receive full cinematic releases. Sadly,
despite some moments of visual storytelling that rival anything in the Studio
Ghibli back catalogue, Arrietty is very much a minor Ghibli.
Loosely based upon Mary Norton’s
much-loved Borrowers novels, Arrietty is directed by Hiromasa
Yonebayashi, a first-time director who started his career as an animator on
such Ghibli classics as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) before finally making the step up to
direction. As one might
expect from a film directed by a former animator, Arrietty is at its absolute
best when it allows the images to do the talking.
Arrietty (voiced by Hanna’s Saorise Ronan) is a tiny person who lives with her
mother and father behind the skirting boards of a Japanese house. Aged 14,
Arrietty begins the film by accompanying her father on her first borrowing
(what the little people call stealing from humans). However, while attempting to ‘borrow’ a piece of tissue
paper, Arrietty is seen by Sho (voiced by Tom Holland). However, rather than
being startled or disgusted by the little people, Sho is welcoming and gentle.
Thus begins a delicate love story about the collision of two very different
Arrietty is as visually impressive as any
piece of animation you may care to name. From the impressionistic rendering of
Sho’s home to the well-colonised cosiness of the borrowers’ wainscot homestead
to the oceanic vastness of a simple human kitchen, Yonebayashi does a brilliant
job of showing us quite how terrifying the human world can seem when you are
only a few inches tall.
However, while the film repeatedly
shows us how alien a world can be when it is not built with you in mind, it
also whispers of conciliation and companionship and of what beauties might be
achieved if only humans and borrowers could learn to live together. This
yearning is symbolised by a dollhouse built by Sho’s family as a place for
borrowers to live. A place of glittering chandeliers and tiny silver kettles,
the dollhouse is nothing short of a holy land for a group of small people that
are very afraid and very alone in a world full of humans.
Of course, life is never as easy as
we would like it to be and Arrietty’s desire to stay with Sho is confounded by
attempts by Sho’s housekeeper to trap the borrowers. Arrietty is a film all about dashed hopes, shattered dreams and
foiled love stories. Unfortunately, while Yonebayashi shows astonishing
promise both as a visual storyteller and as a man with a real talent for shot
composition and world-design, Arrietty struggles beneath the unbearable
burden of a Hayao Miyakazi screenplay.
Arrietty feels a lot like the opening
chapters of a much longer story.
Characters are introduced, worlds are explored and plot hooks are
chucked about the place like confetti but with so much potential left untapped,
Arrietty leaves behind it not a complete story but a series of frustrating
hints at what might have been. For
example, Yonebayashi sets up the dollhouse as an idyllic place for the
borrowers to live but, come the end of the film, they are floating off in a copper
kettle. Similarly, the housekeeper
is introduced as an antagonist and is duly foiled but the threatless dalliances
that occupy so much of the film’s second act feel more like an initial set of
character-defining skirmishes than a real conflict. Sho is said to be ill and
due for an operation but the film ends before the operation takes place raising
the question of why it was even mentioned.
Together these unresolved plot
hooks serve only to undermine what narrative the film actually does
possess. Combine all of this
untapped potential with Yonebashi’s skill as a visual storyteller and you have
the potential for a wonderful story.
However, until Studio Ghibli produces a sequel (a move so far
unprecedented in its twenty six year history) Arrietty is doomed to remain a minor
Ghibli that could have been a whole lot more.