Japanese production house Studio Ghibli, home of manga mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, has arguably been at the forefront of hand drawn animation since it was founded in the mid 1980s. Now, at a point in time in which virtually every major studio has ditched oil and ink in favour of computer generated images — with Disney’s Pixar setting the CGI veneered benchmark — the argument exists no more.

Ghibli’s consummate back catalagoue continues to expand with debut director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s serene adaptation of British author Mary Norton’s 1950’s children’s fable The Borrowers, the fourth consecutive Ghibli feature to have spawned from Western storytelling origins (the previous, Ponyo [2008], directed by Miyazaki, rehashed The Little Mermaid).

The sparkling results feel invigoratingly fresh yet familiar. Mod audiences will hear whispers of Indian in the Cupboard, Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and The Secret of NIMH (1982). 

The story of Arrietty (internationally titled The Secret World of Arrietty revolves around the lives of our micro-sized protagonist and her parents. It taps into a rich, deep vein of child-like wondering, imagining mysterious magical worlds existing out of sight around us. Arrietty’s family live underneath the floorboards of a house where a young and chronically ill child moves in. The premise offers an appreciation of the complexity of small things and a view of the world through child-like goggles as a huge and inconquerable place.

Arrietty’s family and their ancestors have lived underneath the house for decades and its (fully sized) human residents have long suspected their existence. To the diminutive family’s horror, Arrietty is spotted by the young sick boy.  A powerful bond develops between them, a sweet, sticky connection etched in the beautiful and tragic tradition of wonders-cum-memories: the land in Where the Wild Things Roam; the cave of Puff the Magic Dragon; the action figurines or dolls that line the toy trunk of each of our childhoods.

Arrietty’s majestically colorful look, beaming with glorious colour and light, maintains an unprepossessing aura despite its earthy grandeur.

How refreshing it is to see an animated film paced in a manner that doesn’t pander to its audience, insult their intelligence or even shrewdly tick the spectacle boxes in the way Pixar pics do. There are no moments of high-octane dizzying idiocy shoehorned in to keep young’uns wide eyed; instead, a litany of moments of wonder, excitement and eye-dampening elegance.

The emotional high watermark is a poignant scene in which the young dying boy tells Arrrietty that the Borrowers are a doomed species living on, well, borrowed time, sure to fade into extinction. He is projecting feelings of his own mortality, as the sub-text projects a different message, about the curse of age transmogrifying the best moments of life into distant memories.

This scene is the embodient of how rich an experience Arrietty is, and the marvel of Yonebayashi’s crowning achievement: tapping into profundity only adults can appreciate while sweeping children away — and not just aesthetically — during the same moments.

Arrietty’s Australian theatrical release date: January 12, 2012. 

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