When the lauded Studio Ghibli announces a new film, the world takes notice. But not me. Even though I'm a big Ghibli fan, I simply trust their skills well enough to know every new project they produce will reach a certain level of quality that will satisfy me. And The Borrowers is definitely no exception. The only question that remains is how well it compares to other Ghibli films and whether Yonebayashi was able to beat Miyazaki at his own game.
Even though I'm a big supporter of most Ghibli films, the past ten years they've done very little to explore the boundaries of the anime universe. They've been producing pretty much the same film over and over again without worrying too much about innovation. Sure there are differences between films like Ponyo and Howl, but the bottom line is always pretty much the same. All their films feature that same trademark Ghibli charm that people have come to expect from them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I do miss the occasional off-center project like Yamadas or Ocean Waves.
The Borrowers is based on a story by Mary Norton. More and more Ghibli is looking to the West for inspiration, lucky for me they usually dig up something I haven't read or seen before. Apparently Norton's story is quite well-known here, but it went by me completely when I was a kid. So even though I can't really compare this film to the original, I still believe the story itself is universal and simple enough to work independent of its source material.
The Borrowers is about a family of "little people", living underneath the porch of an old country house. Once in a while they head upstairs to borrow some of the inhabitants stuff, but only things that will not be missed. When Arrietty is old enough to undertake her first Borrow, she is spotted by a young boy living in the house. The two learn to appreciate each other's company, but when the cleaning lady discovers the hideout of the little people things get a little too hairy for Arrietty's family, urging them to move out of the house.
Visually the film bears the typical Ghibli style. There is some CG, used very sparingly throughout the film, all the rest is hand-drawn. The backgrounds are colorful, the animation is detailed and life-like and some of the set pieces are absolutely lush. The art style itself is not all that original though and Ghibli doesn't seem to be making all that much progress on a technical level. There aren't many instances where the film actually knows to woo its audience with some impressive camera work or character animation. It's not really a problem yet, but I can't imagine them keeping this up for another ten years.
The soundtrack on the other hand is a bit more daring. Joe Hisaishi wasn't invited to the party this time around, instead French artist Cécile Corbel was issued to provide the music for The Borrowers. Her voice is quite unique, which gives the film some much needed identity. Once you're used to it (the first time she starts singing is a small shock) the score is actually quite nice and helps plenty to define the film's overall feel.
The voice acting is traditionally strong. I actually can't imagine Ghibli delivering a sub-par performance here. There aren't that many big names on the cast list (many TV talents), but they do a pretty solid job nonetheless. For those of you who can't stand Japanese, rest assured that there aren't any grating child actors in this film, most of the dialogue is delivered in soft, easy-on-the-ears Japanese.
The first fifteen minutes I felt like I was watching just another Ghibli film. Even though it was nice enough, I really got the feeling I watched it all before. But then the usual Ghibli magic started kicking in and all what came before was forgotten in a mere second. There aren't many companies who can pull this off, usually lack of creativity of chance is a real show-stopper for me, but the feel of a Ghibli film remains quite unique and is pretty much impossible to produce outside the Ghibli realm.
The Borrowers keeps the dramatic tension to a minimum and leaves lot of room for simple, childlike wonder. One of the nicest scenes is where the old lady of the house showcases her old doll house. The scene itself doesn't add much to the plot and could be seen as a pure waste of storytelling time, but it's just amazing to see an old lady relive the past like that. It's these kind of moment that set the studio apart from other players in the market, and what makes Ghibli films so enjoyable and unique.
Ghibli fans will know what to expect when they go and see this film. It doesn't really bring anything new to the table, but the typical Ghibli charm is still very much there and guarantees you ninety minutes of harmless, relaxing entertainment. The film really puts you at ease, leaving you a little sad when you're finally pulled back to the real world. People not familiar with Ghibli should probably look elsewhere for their entry film as the studio produced better films over the years, but I can't imagine many people actively disliking this film. Recommended watching.