With films like ‘Ponyo’, ‘Tales from Earthsea’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, the studio’s recent output has largely hinged on sumptuous, surreal Euro fantasy, but ‘Arrietty’ falls into a slightly different category. It’s almost a piece of romantic social realism, an animated feature that largely eschews the expressionist flights of fancy expected of the medium and whose focus on character and emotional nuance means that in many respects it operates on the same level as a live-action drama. It’s terrain that Ghibli has navigated before with films such as 1988’s child’s-eye war survival movie, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and 1995’s sublime ‘Whisper of the Heart’, about a schoolgirl (and John Denver fanatic) who wants to become a songwriter.
Here, the action is confined to a country house and its tranquil environs. Sho is the bookish teenager who arrives at the house for a period of convalescence prior to a life-threatening operation. He’s barely reached the front door before he spies Arrietty, one of the fabled ‘little people’, sliding down a vine and dashing back into the undergrowth. The film then pursues Arrietty back to her tiny underfloor abode where she happily resides with her nervy but loving mother and strangely taciturn father. On this occasion, Arrietty is to accompany her father on a borrowing mission, where the pair sneak into the main house and pinch a few household staples that won’t be missed. Buttons, yarn and paperclips become improvised mountaineering gear in a thrilling early action sequence, executed in near-silence and with immaculate attention to detail. It’s not long before Sho sees Arrietty and strikes up a relationship. Sho’s nursemaid, meanwhile, is calling in the exterminators and Arrietty’s petrified parents are looking to shape up and ship out.
Whether very young viewers will warm to the delicate, humane drama at the centre of ‘Arrietty’ is questionable, but you can hardly fault the film for that. There are some scenes where the narrative almost grinds to a halt, inviting you to consider the ornate beauty invested in objects like a hand-crafted dolls’ house before things get moving again. While there is plenty of action, the film’s strain of melancholy cuts deepest: this quasi-amorous adventure could even be interpreted as the gravely ill Sho’s final memories of life.
The movie also addresses the difficulties of living with a physical disadvantage, and how the able-bodied can sometimes exert their dominance. It’s also about the simple tragedy of having to say goodbye to a friend. But most of all, ‘Arrietty’ is a gorgeous, rounded piece of craft, where the subtle, almost tactile textures of the characters and backdrops allow you to appreciate this moving, whimsical tale as if it were real.