Sunday, February 19, 2012

The World Writ Small

I've never read The Borrowers. My girlfriend has a copy of it somewhere. I remember seeing it the last time we moved, but I can't find it right now. I never had a copy, myself. It wasn't among the children's books that my parents provided for my brothers and I and I don't have children in my life myself upon whom to lavish books. Not having children upon whom to lavish books is one of the pleasures of parenting that actively regret, even though I'm generally happy to be child-free. But I digress. I do remember seeing a television production of The Borrowers when I was young, though, so I can't say that The Borrowers wasn't a part of my childhood. It just wasn't a beloved part of my childhood the way the Oz books were. This is down to the luck of the draw, I guess. The Borrowers have been a sturdy source for children's movies over the years, so it's not like I'm unaware of them. I suspect that that may cease in the wake of Studio Ghibli's The Secret World of Arrietty (2010, Hiromasa Yonebayashi), a film of such surpassing charm and enchantment that I can't imagine anyone wanting to suffer the comparison.

The "borrowers" are diminutive people who live under the floors of houses, making their living on things "borrowed" from big people. They borrow things that will never be missed. A cube of sugar here, a discarded straight pin there. With these things, they make a cozy home for themselves. The borrower family consists of teenage Arrietty, her father, Pod, and her mother, Homily. Arrietty is curious about the big people--they call them "beans," short for "human beings"--especially after a boy comes to live in the house where the Arrietty and her family make their home. The boy, Shawn, is sickly. He's been sent to the house to be cared for by his aunt in advance of a heart operation. Shawn is a fatalistic boy. He knows better than most that he's not going to live long. He spots Arrietty upon his arrival, and he attempts to make friends. This ends badly. Arrietty's parents are adamant that if a "bean" sees them, they have to move. No good can come of their friendship. This becomes manifestly apparent when Shawn's nurse, Hara, resolves to prove that the little people exist...

This is one of Studio Ghibli's most beautiful movies (which is saying something). If I were pressed, I'd suggest that this movie's beauty stems from the way it finds beauty in small, mundane things rather than bold, visionary imaginings. This film looks at things all around us from a new perspective, and finds them wondrous in and of themselves. A lawn becomes a jungle from the perspective of a tiny person. A vine becomes a beanstalk. A stamp becomes a framed piece of art. It's all a matter of how you view things. Small things writ large show us a world of variegated marvels that we ordinarily take for granted. This, I think, is the appeal of movies about people made small, whether it's The Incredible Shrinking Man (which shows us horrors in everyday things) or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (which finds adventure in microcosmic spaces) or, indeed in this film, but where other films of this ilk find plots and obstacles in their miniaturized landscapes, this film finds quiet moments, introspection, meditations on morality and on the transience of life, sorrow at a way of life that's passing away. That's a lot to chew, and it's to the film's credit that it doesn't let these themes overwhelm the movie.

More than that, there's a connectedness to the world in this movie that's unique. Insects in this movie, for instance, are neither menaces or cute companions. They are simply natural creatures. I like the way this movie approaches these things. One of my complaints about some of Studio Ghibli's films has always been the emphasis on nature as a spiritual force. This film still finds some kind of transcendence in nature, but it finds it without imbuing it with supernatural otherness. It's easier for me to connect to the scene where Arrietty treats a rolly polly bug as a kind of pet than it is for me to relate to the psychic connection that Nausicaa had to the giant insects of the Toxic Jungle. This seems characteristic of the Studio Ghibli movies made by directors other than Hayao Miyazaki, actually, and this film was directed by one of Miyazaki's animators rather than the great man himself (Miyazaki planned and wrote the screenplay, however). In any event, these are all probably all just my preferences. As usual, your own mileage may vary.

There's also the matter of simple artistry. I mean, it's easy to get a computer to draw something. I create graphics with computers all the time myself, and it's much easier to create with a computer than it is to create by hand. But computer graphics are mercilessly perfect unless you deliberately degrade them. Handmade art, by contrast, has an essential humanity that eludes a computer. This is a delightfully handmade movie. An astonishing handmade movie. Watching it, you are watching a platoon of artists creating thousands of individual pieces of art, each lovingly mounted. There's something primal about this that would elude a computer-made film. Studio Ghibli has clung to this even as other animation studios have abandoned handmade animation, and it's one of the things that makes their films distinctive. This is especially true of this film.

1 comment:

Josh Caporale said...

I was not able to see the movie, but I read "The Borrowers" back in fifth grade and felt the story was really fascinating. There were differences I was able to pick out, such as the boy not having a name in the book and I don't believe his condition was disclosed.

I also agree with the beauty of the animation. This is the same animator that worked with "Ponyo" and "Spirited Away," both of which also had great animation.