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What do you get when bringing together Mary Norton’s award-winning children’s book THE BORROWERS and the talents of animation studio Studio Ghibli — magic. Scripted by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, along with Keiko Niwa, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the film captures the innocent, wide-eyed passion that many of Miyazaki’s directed films do. It’s like they borrowed the adventurous spirit of CASTLE IN THE SKY and stitched in the joy present in films like SPIRITED AWAY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.
Borrowers are tiny beings who live in the walls of normal sized people’s homes, borrowing things from the humans that they will not notice such as a lost pin. Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler, TV’s GOOD LUCK CHARLIE) is growing up and it is time for her father, Pod (Will Arnett, TV’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), to take her on her first mission to collect items for their use. Her mother, Homily (Amy Poehler, TV’s PARKS AND RECREATION), on the other hand, either oscillates between mild panic and outright terror and believes that her daughter is way too young to be venturing out into the larger house. In the end, the calm levelheadedness of her father wins out. However, what Arrietty has not told them is that she has already been spotted by the sick boy Shawn (David Henrie, TV’s WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE), who has come to live in the country home of his great aunt where his mother grew up.
On her borrowing mission, Arrietty is seen by Shawn again. Now that their secret is out they must do what other borrowers have done and move to a new home. Homily is petrified of leaving, while Pod is resigned to doing what must be done to keep his family safe. Arrietty is more bold and decides to confront Shawn to tell him to leave her family alone. The boy, who is set to have heart surgery soon, just wants to help, but the young defiant borrower says they do not need any help. Meanwhile, the house maid Hara (Carol Burnett, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW) begins to get suspicious that pests have invaded the house and sets out to exterminate them.
Part of the film’s joy is in the juxtaposition of size between the worlds of the humans and borrowers. Huge dew drops, the consistency of tissue, bay leaves and sugar cubes take on a new grandeur. These elements are all realized in lush, hand-drawn animation. Making his directing debut on this project, Yonebayashi has clearly learned from Studio Ghibli’s resident master Miyazaki in how to bring simple, pure observation of life into the animation. Too often in American animation these days the action is about getting from one big, flashy moment to the next, but ARRIETY reminds us that the humanity is found in the small details like a subtle look or the way someone puts up their hair. And one cannot forget the details of the Borrowers’ world, which make us believe like Shawn does.
In the tradition of Miyazaki’s TOTORO or classic Disney films, this is a film for kids, but its inventive world and sweet story will appeal to families as well. I reject calling it a family film by today’s standards because the term has become a code word for irreverent, pop culture pandering to attract reluctant teens and parents. There is nothing tongue and cheek or ironic about ARRIETY and that made me fall all the more in love with it. It doesn’t need gags or stunts to entertain — it just tells a good story to entertain. Wow, what a novelty. Others should borrow that.