Director - Hiromasa Yonebashi
The latest Ghibli film is solid kid's fodder but lacking the multi-levelled appeal of previous efforts.
After Tales from Earthsea 2006 my heart sank a little when I saw that the new Ghibli film was based on The Borrowers. The freewheeling surrealism that makes Ghibli so distinct from other children's animations vanished in that being replaced with a traditional style. Some attributed this to the absence from the director's seat of the revered leader of the Ghibli house, Hayao Miyazaki. Whilst this is still the case for The Borrowers, he did pen the screenplay, and with the splendid Ponyo 2008, which originated,albeit loosely, from Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid still in recent memory, it left me hoping that maybe things would be different this time.
The Borrowers is the well known story of the miniature family that coexist secretly with their full sized counterparts, dealing with the threat of exposure, house cats and hungry birds and borrowing enough to survive from the larder. This version doesn't bring anything new to the story focusing on the discovery of the Borrowers by the boy of the house Sho, and Arriety the feisty pint-sized heroine and their relationship thereafter. It has spawned numerous books and a live action film in 1997 with John Goodman downsizing particularly dramatically.
After Spirited Away, Laputa and Princess Mononoke this story is on a much smaller scale. It becomes clear fairly quickly that this is a far less ambitious entry into the Ghibli library. Excitement and action is limited as Miyazaki looks closer at his two leads. Ghibli has some track record with this, those films previously mentioned all had this core dynamic and this would've been fine if handled well, but the character of Sho is as wet as they get. Suffering from some unmentioned illness, he is a particularly boring character and as the story progresses the melodrama is cranked up and it all becomes a bit stale. There are whispered utterances of how important they are to each other and, despite the gutsy Arrietty, it just feels hokey. Though it must be said the old, cackling house help is an enjoyable character; funny, slightly mischievous and far less grating than the other two.
The music at times in some Ghibli offerings can be, for lack of a better word cheesy; sweeping, orchestral cheese at that. With what's been going on on screen before it managed, as it was such a contrast. In this outing however, with nothing to draw our attention the blandness of the score really takes its toll, especially with the cringe-worthy, cloying final song which propels you towards the exit in desperation. It really is awful.
Ultimately the crossover factor that we now expect from children's films just isn't there. Whether this is a fair criticism is up for debate. As entertainment for twinkly eyed kids I'd imagine that it is far more successful. Though, as a Ghibli film which, whether by design or not, have always been able to straddle the divide, there is a tougher criterion and as such it pales in comparison to its illustrious predecessors. Maybe since the advent of the two pillars of the crossover Pixar and Ghibli, and to a lesser degree Dreamworks, we are spoilt as adults, refusing to let the kids have their own movies but, so be it. The Borrowers was a disappointment, a bland film that is unequivocally one for the kids.
As a footnote I watched this in the original Japanese so fingers crossed that when the English voice actors are added it tones it down a bit.