Arrietty (U)

Studio Ghibli doesn't need to keep up with the Pixars.

Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers, about a tiny family that lives largely unobserved in the nooks and crannies of our homes, has been borrowed from with uncommon frequency. The BBC squeezed two series out of the book and its sequels in the early 1990s and is making another, and a jolly film adaptation appeared in 1997. As well as spectacularly unbalancing our sense of scale, the concept returns us to that infant state in which the disadvantages of being small and powerless are offset by the perks of near-invisibility.

Now, Japan's Studio Ghibli has made an animated version. Arrietty is named after a teenage borrower (voiced in the English-language print by Saoirse Ronan) whose curiosity leads her to defy orders not to converse with "human beans". Shinning down the stem of a flower, she is spotted by Sho (Tom Holland), a 12-year-old boy staying at his aunt's home in Tokyo. That night, Arrietty finds her way to his bedside table while on a borrowing mission - "borrowing" being the imperceptible creaming-off of human supplies (a safety pin here, a sugar cube there). Boy and girl become friends, despite the risks posed by normal youthful shenanigans. Just imagine, for instance, the mess if Sho were to high-five her.

While the boy is the physically greater presence, it is Arrietty who has the more stable emotional life, even given the risk that her home could be hoovered up or flattened at any moment. She is supported by an appreciative mother (Olivia Colman) and a gruff, practical father (Mark Strong) who could pass for any dad, until you notice that he is dwarfed by a pair of scissors in his workshop.

Sho, on the other hand, is distressed by his parents' divorce. He never sees his father and his mother has gone on a business trip just days before he is due to have a heart operation. The message for young audiences is that strength is relative. Sho saves Arrietty from a crow attack of such intensity that Alfred Hitchcock would have snipped it out of The Birds to lessen that film's horrors - but it is she who provides the companionship missing from the boy's life.

He repays her by lavishing on her family a brand new kitchen, taken from his mother's doll's house. It's a beautiful gift that could only have been improved if Sho had notified Arrietty's mother that it was coming. Even the shoddiest renovators tend to give you a rough idea of when they will arrive, rather than tearing off the roof of your house while you're standing at the stove. The film's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, excels at these frightening set pieces but he is also subtle enough to let us register at our own speed the film's magical disparities - such as the grey, segmented orb in Arrietty's hands that is not an old-fashioned football but a curled-up woodlouse, preparing to ping into shape and scurry away.

The movie, co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli's co-founder, is at pains not to let us non-borrowers in the audience feel superior about our size. Yonebaya­shi will often locate the larger characters within wide shots that dwarf them artificially. When Sho says to Arrietty, "So many beautiful species have died out as the environment changes - maybe that's what fate has in store for the borrowers," she cuts him down to size on the matter of man­kind's destructiveness. "Fate, you say?" she fumes. "It's you!" I spy a Studio Ghibli fan wise to the environmental lessons of Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke.

It will be a sad day if Studio Ghibli ever feels the need to keep up with the Pixars. For now, its animation style is classical and nothing like as antsy as the computerised equivalent. What is so bewitching about the mostly static backgrounds in Arrietty is that they can be oxygenated at will by the smallest instance of judiciously placed movement, such as a single fluttering ladybird or a pair of jaunty butterflies in the foreground.
The score has that familiar blend of the peaceful and the rousingly lyrical, even if it is prone to Celtic leanings representative of the film-makers' desire either to whip up some Titanic goosebumps or to pay tribute to Tokyo's hitherto unsung Irish folk scene.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right