I’ve cheated a little bit with Arriety…. in the sense that so far I’ve been watching or rewatching all of these Ghibli films in their original Japanese audio with subtitles. But for Arriety, despite it being a completely new first watch for me, I chose to watch the English dub due to the sheer talent involved; Tom Holland, Saorise Ronan, Olivia Coleman and Mark Strong dominate the 2011 StudioCanal dub and the film even marks Tom Holland’s feature film debut. Coupled with the fact that it’s based on the children’s book series written by Mary Norton called The Borrowers which is a British classic, I was convinced to switch to the dub for this time only.
Arrietty, or Arrietty the Borrower in Japan, or The Secret World of Arrietty in North America, is Hiromasa Yonebayashi feature film debut and the film that gave him the honour of being the youngest director in the history of Studio Ghibli. Before Arrietty, Yonebayashi had been working as an animator for the company since Princess Mononoke, and his animating credits also include the TV shows Monster (2004) and Serial Experiments Lain (1998), two classics in the anime community. So with such a stacked filmography heading into his directorial debut, it seemed like the story was in good hands, and for the most part it was. Arrietty is a fun and charming adventure that feels distinct from Miyazaki’s magical aesthetic whilst still retaining the feel of a Studio Ghibli film.
The art style is very reminiscent of the style and designs that can be seen in Miyazaki’s films, not surprisingly it most overlaps with the films that Yonebayashi worked with Miyazaki with. But I would have to say that Miyazaki’s films have a greater sense of fluidity in the movements. Which is unfortunate as the art style and the intricacies of the design are gorgeous and beautiful to look at, and the way in which the tiny world of Arrietty is brought to life with miniature versions of real-world objects creates such a sense of wonder as you watch. One of the best examples of this is early on in the film when Arriety and her father head to the human’s house on a “borrowing trip” to gather supplies. The two head to the kitchen to steal a cube of sugar for Arreitty’s mother, and the way in which the two face obstacles and challenges trying to get the cube in the very mundane and ordinary world of a kitchen is such a great take on the fantasy genre. The art style of the kitchen against the two borrowers, and seeing them compared to the real world objects as they make their way through the cracks in the wall, or the electrical sockets or crossing gaps on a bridge of nails, the film manages to convey this sense of adventure into the domestic sphere in such an organic and interesting way. The animation and art style are so wondrous, the rich and textured designs of the smallest and most mundane household items are given the care and attention they deserve, making it all the more fantastical seeing them alongside the tiny characters. But equally the beauty of the animation extends to the landscapes and design of the countryside home in which the film is set. The house is designed beautifully and the different styles and aesthetics of each room allow the artists to flex their skills, similarly Arriety’s family home is wonderful as it is so detailed with tons of real-world objects being used as the materials to build the house.
Unfortunately for as good as the animation is, there’s something about the film that just holds it back from being great. Don’t get me wrong I still enjoy the film and think it’s really good, but as I mentioned earlier there’s something about the animation that holds it back from moving as fluidly as Miyazaki’s film and maybe it’s because the art styles are so similar that it sticks out more. But similarly the plot isn’t as engaging as many other Ghibli films, and the second act of the film I found to be really boring and unengaging. While I really enjoyed the tension and aesthetic of the shadowy stealthy opening, the second act when the film moves into a romance between Arriety and Shō, the boy who moved into the house, but this section feels like it drags out and as the humans become more aware of the borrowers and Arrietty’s family become scared and consider moving, it just felt like padding and I never felt engaged in this section.
I really do like Arrietty, it marked a turning point for Studio Ghibli ushering in a new generation of voices, but unfortunately Yonebayashi’s direction feels stuck in the shadow of his mentor’s. The same criticism can be levelled at the debut feature of Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which Yonebayashi directed shortly after leaving Studio Ghibli. But while Arrietty wears it’s influences on its sleeve artistically, it doesn’t quite manage to carry the same sense of depth or splendour that Miyazaki has managed to achieve over his career, and as interesting as the world that Yonebayashi creates in Arrietty, it still feels lacking compared to the layered worlds of previous Ghibli films. But despite its failings, Arrietty is still a very competent debut, it is visually striking and the cinematography is superb, and I really don’t dislike the film by any measure, but it feels like Yonebayashi has more to offer but that he hasn’t quite reached his full potential in terms of his directing ability.