ARRIETTY UK DVD & BluRay review

It has to be said, after watching Arrietty - Studio Ghibli's latest animated feature, based on Mary Norton's classic The Borrowers - that the original novel seems so tailor-made for this particular adaptation it's hard to believe no-one ever thought to do it before. Transplanting a beloved cornerstone of English children's literature into the same kind of setting where so many of the studio's productions took place does the source material little, if any harm and ends up inspiring one of Ghibli's strongest films in years. Arrietty is a simple little yarn, true; a tad sentimental with one or two rough spots but it's also elegantly written, playful, exciting and often genuinely moving, with a terrific voice cast and some gorgeous production values even judged by the studio's high standards.

For anyone who hasn't read the books, Norton envisioned a world where tiny people (only a few inches in height) lived parallel lives in the hidden spaces of our houses. They'd set up home in the attic or the walls, say, doing their best to avoid any contact with human beings, taking (borrowing, rather) what they needed to survive only when they were sure the occupants wouldn't notice it was missing. The series follows the misadventures of one particular family of borrowers - Pod, Homily and their impetuous daughter Arrietty, whose curiosity about the human beings she and her parents depend on invariably leads them into trouble.

Ghibli's film roughly follows the plot of Norton's first book, with Shō (Ryunosuke Kamiki) a young boy needing a serious operation sent to convalesce at his grandmother's in Western Tokyo, where he discovers the 'little people' at the same time as Arrietty (Mirai Shida) turns fourteen. Her coming of age means her first journey into the house to learn the art of borrowing. Lonely, struggling to come to terms with his illness, Shō attempts to strike up a friendship with Arrietty, who's desperate not to disappoint her parents but undeniably curious about why talking to humans is forbidden. But when the grandmother's housekeeper starts to investigate the change in the boy's behaviour, the borrowers' comfortable existence ends up in serious danger.

Co-founder Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, and the setup echoes several of his greatest hits - most notably My Neighbour Totoro, which also weighed heavily on the idea of a rural idyll where disaffected kids catch a glimpse of a magical world that's ordinarily hidden from view. Mostly, though, the story fits so well in that it could have been made for that strange, pastoral fairyland which exists largely in the legendary animator's head (Western Tokyo could be the middle of the countryside). Few of Miyazaki's projects reference anything from the last few decades unless it's to make some kind of didactic plot point, and Arrietty is little different - after the first couple of minutes this is a film so resolutely out of time that seeing someone pull out a cellphone feels like cause for a double-take.

Still, with Ghibli continually looking to broaden its talent pool (Miyazaki now being in his 70s), the director's chair went to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who'd been with the studio since starting on in-between animation for Princess Mononoke in 1997 but never had the chance to direct. Even with a relatively simple, intimate story Yonebayashi still manages to find the opportunity to impress; next to the rest of the studio's oeuvre Arrietty doesn't have the big-budget sheen of a Spirited Away, but it's far more polished than a B-list entry like The Cat Returns. The backgrounds are alive with detail, the character designs simple but clean and memorable, and Yonebayashi makes some fantastic use of scale to characterise the borrowers' world and the gulf between them and their hosts.

There are a couple of missteps - Arrietty's first borrowing is a great, great setpiece, expertly paced with some brilliant use of sound to bring home the sheer alien quality of the house from the girl's point of view, but all the long shots use a markedly shoddy backdrop that sours the effect to quite some extent. The quality dips on occasion, with characters losing detail then getting it back again and Ghibli's CG still sticks out a bit too much, coming across as somewhat dated compared to, say, Studio 4C's phenomenal grasp of marrying 2D and 3D. These are nitpicks, for the most part, but Ghibli have set the bar so high in general the little things can't help but stand out.

The voice cast do some great work; Shida in particular (only 17 at the time) turns in a fantastic performance as Arrietty, vulnerable and conflicted yet winningly defiant at the same time. But Miyazaki seems to fumble the passage where Shō impresses on her just how isolated the borrowers are, and how numerous the humans - Kamiki does his best, but talking about doomed species seems less like a distressed young boy scoring points off someone who can't fight back and more like the director putting speeches in the character's mouth. Again, while the halting friendship between the two is largely a joy to watch, it's still a jarring, preachy note that could have been avoided.

Still, for the most part this is Ghibli on top form, and easily the best they've done since the mid- to late 1990s. Arrietty feels like a dance, and not just because of Breton harpist Cécile Corbel's rippling, elegant score - Yonebayashi and his crew make much of the film seem almost effortless, a series of steps planned out so meticulously they could hardly have turned out any different. Ghibli definitely receive more than their fair share of hyperbole, and for all the technical expertise on display here Arrietty is still a simple children's story without much in the way of depth or subtext. But it's honestly wonderful for all that, captivatingly beautiful, the kind of transporting experience that few if any animation houses in the world know how to do. Despite its flaws, Arrietty is one of the jewels in Ghibli's crown, and pretty much anyone who loves great cinema ought to see it.

THE DISC(S):

Studio Canal UK's home video release of Arrietty (also known as The Secret World of Arrietty) comes out on DVD and BluRay double-play today (Monday 9th January). The good; the high-definition release gives the film a fantastic presentation, with a fair amount of bonus material, though some of it tends to the predictable. The bad; the DVD is disappointingly throwaway, with notably poor video and far fewer extras, and feels like an obvious attempt to push the newer format.

The BluRay goes straight from Studio Canal's logo to the menu, though the DVD has several short adverts before that. Annoyingly, the film trailers can be skipped one by one, but the product spots can't. Menus are largely the same on each release, just with the DVD missing some extras - they're pretty, though somewhat cluttered, and backed with an awkward loop of the theme song with the vocals muffled.

The basic Dolby audio track is clear and crisp (the BluRay also includes 5.1 DTS HD audio for both the Japanese and English language tracks). Even the quieter dialogue is still perfectly audible, Cécile Corbel's score fairly glitters and the heavier, low-end audio is fantastically punchy (the sequence with Arrietty's first borrowing makes use of a fair amount of bass). Removable English subtitles are large and easy to read, with few if any grammatical or spelling errors.

The English dub features some excellent casting on paper, though the actors don't come across so well in front of the microphone. Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back), Olivia Coleman (Tyrannosaur) and Mark Strong (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) sound ideal for Arrietty, Homily and Pod, but none have a career in voiceover work and though all three put in the effort they still sound somewhat out of their depth. Conversations tend to be stilted and overly theatrical, with none of the easy rapport the original cast display, not helped by a different translation. All the same, it's there for fans of the actors, or anyone who doesn't want to read subtitles.

The picture on the BluRay is excellent - sharp and vivid, with little if any hint of distortion or blocking, and no apparent edge enhancement or similar tinkering with the video. The wealth of detail in many of the background shots - the borrowers' rooms, or the closeups in the garden - is a joy to freeze-frame and pick through. Ghibli films tend to a slightly lighter colour palette than a lot of commercial animation, but the picture is solid enough to convey the painterly quality of their artwork, as well as keep its richness and depth.

The DVD, sadly, is a different story - though it's still perfectly watchable this is a far worse transfer. Blocking and distortion are clearly visible on a casual examination, with great sections of the background visibly shimmering, and the colours appear frequently washed out, almost lifeless. Obviously this isn't a technical review, but I tried the disc on multiple software players on a PC, in a Playstation 3 and on three different monitors, and while it would probably pass muster for a casual consumer it's hard to believe it would look at all impressive on a large TV. Given the studios' eagerness to continue pushing BluRay by bundling them with DVDs most people will never watch once they've traded up, it's hardly surprising - but still disappointing.

Extras are largely typical for an English Studio Ghibli release, though some do go into more detail than might be expected. As usual, the film comes with an alternate angle track (or picture-in-picture) for the entire running time showing the storyboards, for anyone who wants to compare. While most likely more of interest to animation buffs, it's a nice inclusion. Note that this is the only extra included with the DVD. The original Japanese trailer and two TV spots are worth a brief look to see how Ghibli pitched the film in Japan - while they're cut adequately at best, presumably the artwork and the Ghibli brand are the things that do the talking.

Several interviews with cast and crew are included. Surprisingly, those with Miyazaki himself and Hiromasa Yonebayashi are actually much more substantial than PR fluff at more than a hour in total. They're awkwardly put together; Miyazaki's in particular feels as if it was cut from a much larger feature, given he refers to things surrounding the production that nothing else on the disc establishes, which could leave some people feeling a bit lost.

Still, the legendary animator is as charmingly grumpy as ever; he talks about how they gave Yonebayashi the director's chair because they were in dire need of new blood, and (paraphrased) even says 'We don't need to close the studio quite yet, but...' The younger man appears visibly awed by the camera, struggling a little with a pronounced lisp, but talks eloquently and engagingly about the genesis of the film and the thought behind his vision of the characters, walking the viewer through a selection of his concept art.

We also get interviews with the five principal actors on the English dub (Ronan, Strong, Coleman, Tom Holland as Sho and Geraldine McEwan as Haru, the housekeeper). These are all obviously press kit material, though - why did you agree to do the film, what is it about, who is your character and so on. All five come across as enthusiastic enough, but can't really make these softball questions particularly interesting.

There's also a video of Cécile Corbel and her backing band performing the film's theme song. While the video itself is fairly bland, Corbel's wonderful score sadly remains unavailable outside Japan (even her regular albums of folk standards are not as widely available as they ought to be) so while the clip remains a gimmick, it's a welcome one.

One of Ghibli's strongest films in years, one can only hope Arrietty begins a real creative resurgence for the long-running animation studio after several relatively difficult years trying to establish new talent to carry on their founders' legacy. While the actual story here is fairly simple, and the film suffers from the odd moment of mawkishness or technical hiccups, this is still terrific stuff - a captivating, enchanting little drama that ranks as one of the very best entries in the studio's renowned back catalogue. Studio Canal UK's home video release is a little disappointing on the one hand, being largely par for the course on extras with a mediocre DVD - but whatever the motive, on the other hand the BluRay features a superb picture that shows off a gorgeous film to tremendous effect. 
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