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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Here's a stat to chill the heart of any fan of painterly, hand-drawn animation and prefer their family movies to be told with gentle grace rather than screaming pop culture references and fart jokes: of the 18 feature films produced in the 26-year history of Studio Ghibli, fully two-thirds of them have been directed by 71-year-old Miyazaki Hayao or 76-year-old Takahata Isao. Even chillier: until 2011, they were the only individuals to direct multiple Ghibli features, and the film to break that record was helmed by Miyazaki's son Goro, who had previously mismanaged Tales from Earthsea, the consensus pick as the studio's all-time worst project. It's not news that Ghibli has had a difficult time finding a likely successor to the two grand masters who co-founded it; but when you slow down to really stare those figures in the face... I mean, Christ. We're not in "every new Ghibli film may be the last" territory yet, but it's close enough that you can start throwing phrases like that around.

At any rate, the studio executives continue to give new directors a chance to try their stuff, and the latest sample is presently on American soil, though it premiered in Japan in the summer of 2010: The Secret World of Arrietty, an unusually crappy title for a film known in its native country as The Borrower Arrietty. By any name, the film's completion represents the end of a four-decade quest on the part of producer-screenwriter Miyazaki to film an animated adaptation of Mary Norton's 1952 children's novel The Borrowers, which has since been turned into a 1973 telefilm, a 1992 television program, and a 1997 feature; I am personally familiar only with the last of these - and I wish I wasn't - so I can't say what seems likely, which is that Ghibli's version of the story is the best; certainly not the truest to the book, which has an irreducible Britishness to it that survives the translation to the Japanese suburbs not one iota, but it's hard to imagine this scenario playing out with more delicacy and care than animator-turned-director Yonebayashi Hiromasa brings to bear. It is fair to admit that Arrietty is pretty darn far from the best of the studio's output, owing mainly to a somewhat less sophisticated narrative - it comes powerfully close to having the kind of straightforward comic villain that Ghibli is so very good at avoiding - and partially to a significantly less complex visual style than the great majority of their films. It's also fair to say that if there's a more sensible and appealing movie "for kids" that has all the right kind of sweetness and intelligence to be just as good for adults released in the States this year, I will very likely die of shock.

Arrietty of the title is a 14-year-old girl living with her parents Pod and Homily in a house on the edge of the woods. Not "in", maybe. "Under". This is, you see, a family of borrowers, a race of hominids about three inches tall, who live by snagging odds and ends that the full-sized humans, called "beans", don't need and won't notice if they go missing: a sugar cube here, a sheet of tissue there, and so on. The story kicks off when a young human named Shawn (Sho in the original Japanese version) moves into the house to rest up in preparation for a rather dangerous round of heart surgery; he happens to come along the same day that Arrietty is going on her first borrowing trip, and she manages to get seen. Things unravel steadily but quietly from here: the calculating housekeeper Hara/Haru has been convinced for years that there are little people in the floorboards, and Shawn's awkward attempts to hide them only serve to rouse her suspicions; in addition, the boy's attempts to help tend only to get Pod and especially Homily all the more paranoid than they already are, and the borrower family is forced to confront the horrible question of whether or not it's worth the arduous, dangerous trip to a different human house, where they won't be hunted like rodents.

That conflict, such as it is, opens up during the film's 94 minutes with almost exaggerated slowness; Yonebayashi (doubtlessly taking at least some of his cues from Miyazaki's script - there's a lot of My Neighbor Totoro in Arrietty's DNA) would prefer to linger over moments of peace, particularly the exquisitely restrained development of Arrietty and Shawn's friendship, than emphasise moments of tension, and it's probably not a coincidence that the scenes which generally land the hardest, particularly a sequence involving a murderous crow that feels like it goes on forever, are those which violate this generally aimable spirit. It is, in all ways, a singularly nice movie, legitimately and effectively so; and it's not common at all for niceness to avoid the feeling that it's condescending to us.

The same spirit infuses the visuals, which are far simpler than the films by which Ghibli made its reputation in the West, primarily Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away: the look is deliberately stripped down, "cartoonified", with delicate shading replaced by bold patches of color, and exactingly precise lines dropped in favor a few swift strokes that give us "face" without attending to every crag and wrinkle. If it recalls anything in Ghibli's recent history, it's The Cat Returns, a feeling strengthened by the pride of place given to the film's depiction of Shawn's cat, a round shape in just a few colors that still manages to express with admirable specificity the altogether cat-like emotions of "I want to eat you" and "I am too comfortable not moving to bother with eating you now". And it all takes place against drop-dead gorgeous backgrounds, done up like oil paintings that started off on the road to Impressionism before the painter decided that realism wasn't so bad, after all. Indeed, if the character design and animation are pleasing to the eye but ultimately slight, it's the vivid, evocative backgrounds that give the film the bulk of its visual impact: the borrowers' world is rich and detailed without seemingly blandly "real", and it is a potent reminder of what 2-D animation can achieve, stylistically, that tends to fall flat in fully-rendered CGI. But I surely don't need to bang that drum any more than I have over the years.

I am tempted, in fact, to say that the only place the film genuinely comes up short, rather than being a very effectively anti-ambitious mood piece, is in its American localisation; considering how high the bar Disney and especially John Lasseter have raised the bar for quality dubbing tracks, the U.S. Arrietty is embarrassingly shoddy, with far too many examples of Godzilla-esque "the mouth is moving but the words aren't coming" fuck-ups, and a less-than-inspired batch of voiceovers: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are fine as Homily and Pod, if wasted, while Carol Burnett's Hara is just a touch too obviously Carol Burnett. And the less said about Disney teen star product Bridgit Mendler's anodyne take on Arrietty, the better (in the UK, they got Saoirse Ronan, lucky British bastards). So it's a bit of a difficult place to be in: the movie is charming and delightful and simple and deeply pleasing, but I would really strongly advise anyone reading this to wait until the DVD comes out, and just watch the Japanese track, the way Disney always makes us do. It'll be worth it, I promise: low-key and all, but Arrietty is a sleepy charmer, from its playful establishing scenes of a microscopic, detailed-packed world, all the way to its hopefully melancholy final moments.



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