Studio Ghibli has taken Mary Norton’s classic novel, “The Borrowers” and made it uniquely its own, but it’s done so without losing what is best in Norton’s story. The adaptation by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa may have been transferred the action to Japan, but the basic elements of loneliness, friendship, and the fragility of life are intact, along with that ineffable sense of wonder, melancholy, and magic.
The Borrowers are four-inch-tall folk who share the homes of regular sized people, dubbed by the Borrowers “Human Beans”. They set up cozy homes in walls and under the floorboards and live by borrowing things that the Beans won’t miss and that they don’t really need. It’s a life of close-knit family warmth, but one fraught with danger from crows, cats, rats, and the even more insidious danger of being spotted by the Beans. One sighting and Borrowers are forced to move.
Thirteen-year-old Arrietty (Bridget Mendler), the only daughter of the only Borrower family left in her house, has been brought up with tales of relatives coming to bad ends being careless, but it hasn’t stopped her taking chances by crossing the garden to find bay leaves for her mother, or dampened her enthusiasm for her first borrowing mission, even though the garden adventure results in her being spotted by Shawn (David Henrie), the boy sent to live in her house while awaiting a heart operation.
During that first mission, Arrietty’s mother, Homily (Amy Poehler) frets, her father, Pod (Will Arnett), is laconically proud, and Arrietty bubbles with enthusiasm as she makes her way across dizzying heights behind the walls as red-eyed rats linger below, and navigates the vast territory of a nighttime kitchen with expert efficiency. The mission is a bust when Shawn spots Arrietty for a second time, this time with her father as a witness. Though eventually Shawn and Arrietty find a bond in their mutual curiosity about the other, and their mutual loneliness, Arrietty’s parents are adamant about the Beans being evil, and Miss Haru (Carol Burnett), the maid taking care of Shawn, becomes obsessed with proving that the little people exist.
There is a winning emphasis on the natural world here, including a perfectly conceived moment during which Arrietty plays with a doodlebug, which then wanders off to join another of its own kind, leaving Arrietty all the more alone. Though the animation uses perfectly chosen, meticulously rendered details over fully rendering every element, it, like that perfect moment with Arrietty and the bug, focuses on mood and story with a precision that makes sense of the concept of less being more, in this case, so much more. It is an ideally reflective framework for a story that is simple, but profound, meditating as it does on life, death, and the capacity for keeping hope alive balanced with accepting reality on its own terms. Bringing the story distinctly into the modern world, there is a subtle but distinct subtext about sustainability. The Borrowers are, after all, the masters and mistresses of repurposing objects that might otherwise be thrown away.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY is a visual delight, with the wonderful juxtaposition of people, large and small, and panoramas that play with the differences in scale and perception. That the tea poured from a Borrower teapot into a Borrower teacup shows the physical properties of surface tension appropriate for its size is a welcome surprise. But finding reality in this fantasy world with such warmth and such honesty is the film’s greatest strength and most artistic charm.