Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Olivia Colman, Tom Holland, Phyllida Law, Geraldine McEwan
Running time: 94 mins
Arrietty is the latest movie from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house behind Spirited Away (an Oscar winner, no less), Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo. The studio's co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is held in such high regard, in fact, that he's often seen as Eastern animation's answer to Walt Disney. For Arrietty, Miyazaki takes a leaf out of Mary Norton's The Borrowers as he co-writes and produces for first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Stunningly beautiful and deeply touching, Arrietty is one of the year's stand-out animated films. It follows a "little people" family of three living under the floorboards in a mansion set in the countryside outside of Tokyo. There's the stern but caring father (Mark Strong), the doting and perpetually on-edge mother (Olivia Colman) and 14-year-old Arrietty herself (Hanna's Saoirse Ronan). Occasionally they venture upwards to "borrow" items from the home's occupiers, taking small bits each time so as not to alert the owner Sadako (Phyllida Law) and her maid Haru (Geraldine McEwan).
Sho (Tom Holland), a young boy awaiting an operation for his weak heart, is staying with his aunt Sadako when he spies Arrietty and her father in his bedroom after they've swiped a sugar cube. For Sho, whose ill health has meant a life away from other kids, the meeting is a transformative one. Aunt Sadako spoke of the house's rumoured secret inhabitants before, but their emergence gives Sho the chance to bond with the open-minded Arrietty. However, suspicious maid Haru is not so enthused and sets out to rid the place of the mini-squatters by bringing in pest control.
Arrietty's intricate and layered design is complemented by an excellent English-language dub and evocative music from Cécile Corbel. Impressive sound work also enhances the experience, particularly the subtle noises - such as the tick-tocking of a grandfather clock - that puncture the silence while father and daughter are on their borrowing adventures. The film lacks the more extravagant touches of Studio Ghibli's previous features, yet it's still packed with the humour and offbeat charm that's a signature of Miyazaki.
Director Yonebayashi is also able to strike a smart balance between wonder and danger, setting the small characters in grand surroundings to establish scale. A moment when a crow crashes through a window, its beak snapping furiously in search of Arrietty, is particularly memorable, as is Sho's pet cat, a frequent nemesis of the miniature people. The regular Ghibli themes of friendship, trust, nature and outsiders all give Arrietty a solid emotional core - it's almost impossible not to be moved as Sho rips out the kitchen from a doll's house to give to his new-found friends. The boy may have a weak heart, but his gesture shows that Arrietty has its own firmly fixed in the right place.