So too is the attention to detail, particularly when we’re at focused on the Borrowers. Everyday objects being used in novel ways is a trope common to most films with miniature characters. We’ve seen it in everything, from Honey I Shrunk The Kids to A Bug’s Life, but rarely have we seen the attention to scale that director Yonebayashi gives. In addition to the obvious – plant pots as fireplaces and Sellotape as climbing gear, real world physics are thought of. Consequently, liquids don’t flow but instead pool as drops, held together by their own tension.This is perfectly complemented by sound design; not only are noises louder when we’re at small scale, but they reverberate longer, selling the sense of scale perfectly.
Unfortunately, as a whole, the film doesn’t just match the technical achievement , although it’s not for want of trying. The characterizations work well – Pod the stern but loving Japanese father and Homily the neurotic, worrying mother especially so, but the story lets it down.
In spite of their belief to the contrary, Arrietty’s family ARE welcome in the house in which they are squatting. We see this in the affection Sho and his great aunt display when they speak about the ‘little people’. Our source of drama, therefore comes from Haru, the housekeeper, who is determined to catch them. The problem with this is that there is no logical reason why she should feel such animosity. Certainly there’s no reason why anyone in their right mind would continue to employ her given that she is utterly unhinged. As a result of this, she doesn’t feel like a character so much as a talking plot device.
Worse still, as the film progresses, she begins to act in a way that would, in any sensible world not only see her out on her ear, but likely institutionalised for her own protection. This leap in logic, and unbelievable antagonist makes it very hard to remain engaged, and by the time we come to a pivotal interplay between Arrietty and Sho in the garden of the house, most of our emotional connection to the film and its characters is gone, which leaves the scene feeling somewhat turgid and forced.
All told, Arrietty is a bit like a cover version of a Ghibli film. It’s perfectly competent, but seems to miss what it is that makes films like My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away truly great. It has its moments, and it is still very enjoyable, but its a near miss rather than a direct hit. Of course, this being Ghibli, even a near miss still has a lot to recommend it, but die-hard fans of the studio will probably feel a little disappointed.
Most of the extras feel a bit tacked on. The Japanese trailers are pretty enough, but provide little valuable detail and the interviews with the voice cast of the English dub feel as if they were carried out by work experience temp – the same bland, insight-free questions asked to each of them. The music video is nice enough, but also seems like filler. Fortunately there is some very good stuff on there too.
The opportunity to run the entire film with the corresponding storyboards is fascinating, and while time constraints meant I only got about a quarter of an hour in when I did so, I plan to go back and watch the whole thing as soon as I have a few moments to myself.
The interview with Yonebayashi gives a fascinating insight into his personality. The shambolic nature means that it does become jarring after a while (I’d advise watching it in two 15 minute chunks rather than all in one go), but it’s definitely worth a look. The crown jewel, however, and the reason to buy the disc is a 25 minute interview with Hayao Miyazaki. Carried out during the production process, Miyazaki is astonishingly candid, talking about Yonebayashi, as well as animation, and Japanese culture in general. He walks a fine line between despondent wise man and cantankerous old git, traversing it frequently, but it is also a terrific opportunity to understand not only him, but how dedicated his employees must be. Word to the wise though, watch the Yonebayashi interview first, no matter how it’s presented on the disc.