IF YOU AREN’T already a hardcore fan of Studio Ghibli animations, you really ought to consider it as a lifestyle choice. Even without their top-flight offerings – the grand, undisputed masterpieces Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro – the imprint’s run-of-the-mill output puts everything else in the cartooniverse to shame.
Drawing inspiration from Mary Norton’s whimsical children’s classic The Borrowers, Arrietty builds platonic, pre-teen romance (a sure Ghibli tell) from the notion of little people living under the floorboards. 12-year-old Shô has arrived at the house his mother grew up in when he encounters the tiny titular heroine. Arrietty, a 10cm-tall “borrower”, lives with her equally diminutive parents on the teeny scraps that humans leave behind and is given expression by Irish actor Saoirse Ronan.
Shô, a delicate boy awaiting risky heart surgery, determines to befriend the wee folk. But his great aunt Sadako’s maid has other ideas and promptly calls in pest control. Can Arrietty and her family make good their escape? And is there anywhere left for them to go?
Arrietty stands out as Ghibli’s most bittersweet delight since the atomic childhood explored in Grave of the Fireflies. Sedate where last year’s Ponyo was bouncy and upbeat, Arrietty distils its source material into affecting minimalist drama. If it weren’t for the lush pastorals (studio artists typically spend months sketching from life) it might be mistaken for a Bresson picture.
The pretty visuals work to extend the fantasy and squish the dimensions; sugar cubes are heavy-medicine-ball-sized luxuries; pins double as sabres; a crow is bigger than a dragon and the merest drop of liquid fills the heartiest vessel.
But will 2011’s only family entertainment to feature a score from Bretonne harper Cécile Corbel appeal to children? The $126,368,084 box office tally from Japan says “yes”.