A spirited young heroine and an enchantingly beautiful setting make a story of friendship and courage beguiling in Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Mary Norton’s popular series of “Borrower” books. First published in the mid-1950’s, the stories are on based on a fanciful but entirely plausible explanation for the disappearance of small household items. Norton says are taken by “Borrowers,” tiny people who live inside the walls and beneath the floorboards. We never see them because they are terrified of what they call “human beans.”
The story begins as two big changes are taking place in a charming country cottage. A four-inch 14-year-old named Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is finally old enough to embark on her first borrowing expedition, in search of sugar and facial tissue. She is the only daughter of stalwart provider Pod and anxious homemaker Homily (real-life sitcom star spouses Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), who fear they may be the last Borrowers left in the world. And a frail “bean” boy named Shawn (David Henrie) arrives at the cottage, where he will be cared for until he has surgery.
Both the human and the Borrower children will ignore the warnings of the adults around them to learn about each other’s worlds and then to become friends.
It seems only fair that a story about borrowing should itself borrow so seamlessly across borders of time, geography, and culture. Norton’s British mid-century story, Ghibli’s Japanese animation, and American distributor Disney-selected voice talent all complement settings that are not so much regionless as an idyllic pan-global amalgamation. Less universally appealing is the script. It is more linear than many Studio Ghibli films but the dialog is stiff and the jokes are clunky, even delivered by reliable comic actors Arnett, Poehler, and Carol Burnett as the housekeeper who brings in exterminators to capture the Borrowers.
Studio Ghibli and screenwriter/producer Hayao Miyazaki are justly famous as masters of gorgeous hand-painted watercolor backgrounds invoking an enticing vision of lush gardens and inviting living spaces. Instead of the hyper-reality of digitally-created CGI images in most of today’s animated films, the hand-painted world of Arrietty is dreamy but tactile, with ladybugs shaking fat dew drops from velvety leaves and an exquisitely furnished dollhouse that is of interest to both the large and small residents of the cottage. But the backgrounds are so gorgeously painted that by comparison the characters can look under-drawn, like paper dolls with large but unexpressive, Keane-like eyes.
The animators have a lot of fun with scale, as we go back and forth between the “bean”-sized world and the tiny replica inhabited by the Borrowers. Each image is filled with captivating detail as we see items from one world re-contextualized in another. In their own little quarters, “borrowed” items are cleverly repurposed by Pod and Homily with detail that makes us wish for a pause button. One sugar cube seems small in a bowl on the “bean’s” table. But for Arrietty, it is nearly as wide as her shoulders, as a grub is the size of an armadillo, a rat is the size of a lion, and a pin becomes a sword. The angles are superbly used to establish the perspective of the tiny Borrowers. Scaling the “bean” kitchen table looks vertiginous.
What is most effective is the way the sense of peaceful shelter and retreat in the country setting contrasts with the precariousness of the situations faced by Shawn and Arrietty. He soberly faces the possibility that he might not survive his surgery and she risks her life whenever she leaves her home. The drama is deepened, too, by the contrast between Shawn’s physical fragility and Arrietty’s robust energy. He can hardly walk across the garden without stopping to catch his breath while she rappels the household furniture as though she is scaling Everest. But both learn from each other and their tentative steps toward friendship are sweetly expressed.
Parents should know that this G-rated film includes a seriously ill child who discusses the possibility that he might not survive surgery and some moments of peril.
Family discussion: What do Shawn and Arrietty learn from one another? How is “borrowing” different from stealing? How do Pod and Homily show their different ways of looking at the world?
If you like this, try: “The Indian in the Cupboard.” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and the Borrower books by Mary Norton