Written by Richard Parkin
24 Sunday 24th July 2011

Sho is a young boy with a heart problem. Farmed out to the countryside to live with his aunt whilst he recuperates, he spots little Arrietty as soon as he steps out of the car. The problem is Arrietty is not supposed to have been seen, and now her family - potentially the only ‘borrowers’ or ‘little people’ left in the world - are put at risk and must up sticks and leave their tiny home beneath the cupboard floorboards. As a secretive relationship between the two develops it becomes a touching tale about two lonely kids who are struggling with the likelihood of a short existence.

The quaintness of the story is familiar territory. Miyazaki loves to seek the magic in a summer getaway, or a move to the country, and Sho’s illness brings to mind 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro, which sees a family extracted to the countryside to be near a dying mother. The message this time round is equally heartfelt (if not a little over-sentimental compared to Ghibli’s usually more tentative standards) and the ecological morality-tale thrown at us in the shape of the borrowers’ waning existence is a little unnerving in its lack of subtlety too.  

But in true Ghibli style we are swept up in the sheer majesty of it all. The world of the borrowers is magnificently thought out; the intricate animation sees raindrops appear the size of tennis balls on Arrietty’s clothing and the shrubbery akin to an Amazonian wilderness is simply sublime. A pin becomes a sword in this world, a sugar cube a year’s supply and one sheet of tissue paper the equivalent of a supermarket family pack.

There is a welcome inclusion of a comical villain that brings some small, but ultimately non-threatening tension to the plight of Arrietty’s family too. Haru is a brilliant old lady who’s gone slightly mad through her belief in the borrowers’ existence. The focus of the film always remains, however, the relationship between the two children which shows Studio Ghibli’s persistence in expressing the simple joys in life first and foremost. Fundamentally, they’ve made a film we can all relate to that is utterly entrenched with their trademark splattering of childhood wonderment.

We caught up with actress Saoirse Ronan, who voices Arrietty in the English version.

What did you know about Arrietty when you signed up? Were you a Studio Ghibli fan?

Well I knew that it was based on The Borrowers. I used to read different versions of it growing up so I knew it was a story I loved and it was kind of ‘different’ and quirky. Probably the most exciting thing though was the fact that it was a Japanese animation, not simply a cartoon but one from the East.  I’ve grown up with different [Japanese] animated shows over the years so to actually be involved in something like that was great. I had seen Spirited Away and My Neighbour Tororo as well. Spirited Away in particular I found amazing. The Japanese style is so different from ours and it’s quite innocent as well. They’re magical and otherworldly.

Ghibli films like to have a nice message. Arrietty has quite a strong ecological one. What is the film about for you?

For me it is actually about the relationship between her and the boy. It’s special because they live in two separate worlds. For a different being who is superior to her, and ultimately more powerful, to help her and her family survive is actually quite a strong message, I think. You could tie up the situation they’re in, which is her people struggling to survive, striving all the time to have a better life, with so many different situations today all over the world.

Your last film Hanna was a hugely physical role. What’s it like then having to go into a studio and do voice work?

I absolutely love going into the studio and just using my voice. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do Arrietty, for the absolute pleasure of being able to focus just on your voice and nothing else. It’s really great. We did an awful lot of it for The Lovely Bones.

I imagine it can be a little painstaking matching it to the animation though.  

There were certain lines in Arrietty that when I watched it, I thought ‘that was a bummer to get’. I mean it’s easier because they do the 'fish mouth'  - up and down, up and down - but it was difficult because it hadn’t been made around my voice like other animations would be. It is tricky.

So since Hanna you’re a bona fide action girl.

Am I?

Absolutely. Are we going to see you kicking ass more often from now on?

Well, I do that in my daily life anyway! I really loved doing it but it does take an awful lot out of you, and because you spend so much time doing a lot of physical work and not dealing with dialogue it’s nice to go back to that. It’s a great way to focus and physically train before shooting a film.

You’re next film coming out is Violet and Daisy. It sounds quite similar, being about two teenage assassins...

Well they’re teenage hit-girls. I was worried it would be repetitive but Violet and Daisy is set in New York City and it’s about  two best friends who live in their own little bubble. They want to get a dress that their teen pop idol has just brought out so they go on a job to kill James Gandolfini’s character, and Daisy ends up having a relationship with him. So it’s completely different. 

You can watch Studio Ghibli’s finest in a special season at the Barbican running until the end of July. Arrietty will hit UK cinemas for general release from 29 July 2011.

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    Mon 06 - Aug - 2012, 20:23