Two views of ‘The Borrowers’

The concept of little people has been around for some time and many different tales have been told before Mary Norton published her 1952 book “The Borrowers.” This year, we have two versions: the 1910 Japanese animated feature film, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” and the 2011 BBC production “The Borrowers” released on 25 December 2011, but hasn’t crossed the pond as of yet.  You can buy the 1997 movie version with John Goodman on Amazon Instant Video.

Norton wrote five books in all, following up the first book with the 1955 “The Borrowers Afield,” the 1959 “The Borrowers Afloat,” the 1961 “The Borrowers Aloft” and the final book,the 1982  “The Borrowers Avenged.”

Norton was born in 1903 and was married twice, first to Robert Norton in 1946 and then to Lionel Boncey in 1970.  Her first book was published in 1943, “The Magic Bed Knob” and that book along with its sequel “Bonfires and Broomsticks” became a 1971 Disney film, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”

In 1967, an American writer named John Peterson (1924-2002) wrote a book called “The Littles.”  Peterson wrote 17 books in all with the last one published in 2003. Others besides Peterson continued the series. The Littles were mouse-like in appearance and had a more extensive family.

The Irish have always had their tales of little people, the Leprechauns. “The History of Tom Thumb” was published in 1621. Hans Christian Andersen wrote “Thumbelina” in 1835 along with other stories in his “”Fairy Tales Told for Children.” In Japan there was Momotaro (the Peach Boy) as well as Issun Boshi (“The Inch-High Samurai”) from the “Otogizoshi” which was written during the Muromachi period (1392-1573).

“The Borrowers” was made into a TV movie in 1973. The BBC made a TV series in 1992 and followed it with a sequel, “The Return in the Borrowers” in 1993.

With the 2010 Japanese animation out of the famed Ghibli Studio, and the BBC 2011 production families have a choice of two adaptations. Oddly, the Japanese production “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which won the Animation of the Year Award from the Japanese Academy, is more interested in a contemplation of normal life situation while the John Goodman 1997 “The Borrowers” has real life actors being cartoonish–with plenty of slapstick violence and potentially dangerous situations.

From the beginning there’s a sense of explosive danger in the English movie. A precocious boy named Pete (Bradley Pierce) is determined to find what is taking various objects–to the extent of putting a trap in the washing machine. He also sets up a chain reaction of gizmos that will finally end with a gunpowder line and a small poof of an explosion where a wind-up toy robot is tied up. Pete’s mother and father , Joe and Victoria Lender (Aden Gillett and Doon Mackichan) have lived in this house with an elderly aunt who we don’t meet. She supposedly wrote a will leaving the house to the Lenders. However, the lawyer claims there was no such will and the house is his.

The lawyer, Ocious P. Potter, played by John Goodman with evil zeal, plans to build Pottersville by bilking the family out of the house that their late aunt left them.

There’s plenty of product placement here: Johnson & Johnson Reach, Energizer batteries, Eggos, Breyers Ice Cream and more. The Borrowers are portrayed as zany characters by dress and features. Arriety (Flora Newbigin) has two balls of hair symmetrically placed that set on her head like two stylized mushrooms. Her father, Pod (Jim Broadbent) and her two brothers (Tom Felton as Peagreen and Raymond Pickard as Spud) have masses of curly red hair set in corkscrew curls. The mother, Homily (Celia Imrie)  also has masses of red hair in two high ponytails tied up at the end and the effect is like a cocker spaniel’s ears.

The humans, however, have straight hair and are somewhat aware of the Borrowers because so many things go missing and these Borrowers aren’t that good at staying out of sight and leave traces of their whereabouts.

Pete captures Arriety early on and they quickly form an alliance. Pete and the Borrowers work together, first to move the Borrowers to the Lenders’ new home and then to foil the plans of the dastardly lawyer. Almost every 10 minutes the Borrowers face some potentially life-threatening situation so that we can be awed by the problem of being small in a land of the giants (for those who missed that series).

What’s missing is character development and the contemplation of what friendship really is and can two different races of humanoid forms co-exist?

In director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “The Secret World of Arriety”  (借りぐらしのアリエッティ)  events move more slowly and while both worlds have their comic relief, there’s plenty of serious problems to be faced. Arrietty (voiced by Bridget Mendler in the American dubbed version) is a young 14-year-old girl who is brave but not always wise. On an unauthorized excursion, Arrietty is seen briefly by Shawn (voiced by David Henrie for the American dub and originally named Sho in the Japanese version).

The 12-year-old Shawn has come to live in the country at this great aunt’s house to rest before his heart surgery. He doesn’t believe he will live and has accepted it. He receives no letters or messages from his friends at school. His mother, who grew up in this house,  is away and has divorced his father.

The great aunt, Sadako (Gracie Poletti), tells show that once a long time ago, the Borrowers were seen and his mother and her father built a dollhouse especially for the Borrowers with working lights and kitchen. But the Borrowers were never seen again and the house waits to be used.

Sadako’s maid, Hara in the American dub instead of Haru, is voiced by Carol Burnett. Hara hopes to find the Borrowers with the possibility of monetary gain. Hara’s not a bad person, not a real villain, but the Borrowers must be saved from her.

Arrietty’s mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), provide the comic relief in the Borrower world. She is pessimistic and tends toward hysteria while her husband, Pod (Will Arnett), is stoic and serious. I can’t remember him every cracking a smile during the whole story.

Despite Shawn’s kindness and the dollhouse, Pod feels that having been discovered, they must move. He injures himself while scouting out a new place and is helped back by a young Borrower boy, Spiller (Moisés Arias) who is the equivalent of Tarzan, but perhaps raised by flying squirrels instead of apes. We see that Spiller has a shy affection for Arrietty and he comforts the family in the knowledge that they aren’t the only Borrowers left in this modern world.

Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, this directoral debut for Yonebayashi is comforting. As with other Studio Ghibli animations, it features a strong female protagonist who has real faults and moments of folly, but is supported by her family. So much attention has been paid to the scale of things. Water becomes gelatinous pearls instead of flowing as it would for us as human “beans.” The tentative friendship between Shawn and Arriety is tender, with false starts, minor misunderstandings and kindness.

The original story also involved a young boy, but he was recovering from illness instead of possibly facing death. In the end of the book, he doesn’t know if his Borrower friends escape. In this animated feature, he can’t be sure where the Borrowers will find their new home or if they will even survive their treacherous journey down the water into the unknown.

That kind of unresolved ending where there is no closure and there are no villains to be defeated might disturb American viewers.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is a softly glowing gem from the Studio Ghibli. It’s a quiet story in which the animation gives you a new appreciation for flowers and fields of green and makes you consider how frightful things like crows might seem.

Making a 14-year-old girl a hero working with an invalid 12-year-old boy allows us to see courage somewhere else than the usual places–a spunky young boy with a precociously clever mind. By taking us somewhere else, seeing strength were too often movies shows us weakness, “The Secret World of Arrietty” gives us a precious new view of heroism if only we can slow down and see it.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is currently showing at the ArcLight Pasadena.

ArcLight Pasadena – 336 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA – Map
‎10:00am‎ – ‎12:00‎ – ‎2:15‎ – ‎4:45‎ – ‎7:00‎ – ‎9:45‎ – ‎11:55pm‎
AMC Atlantic Times Square 14 – 450 N. Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park, CA – Map
‎11:40am‎ – ‎2:05‎ – ‎4:40‎ – ‎7:00‎ – ‎9:20pm‎
AMC Santa Anita 16 – 400 Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA – Map
‎10:55am‎ – ‎1:35‎ – ‎4:05‎ – ‎6:35‎ – ‎9:10‎ – ‎11:30pm‎
UA LaCanada Flintridge 8 – 1919 Verdugo Blvd, LaCanada Flintridge, CA – Map
‎1:15‎ – ‎4:10‎ – ‎7:10‎ – ‎9:40pm‎
Pacific Theatres Glendale 18 – 322 Americana Way, Glendale, CA – Map
‎11:50am‎ – ‎12:40‎ – ‎2:20‎ – ‎3:05‎ – ‎4:50‎ – ‎5:30‎ – ‎7:15‎ – ‎9:45pm‎
Krikorian Monrovia Cinema 12 – 410 South Myrtle Avenue, Monrovia, CA – Map
‎11:45am‎ – ‎2:15‎ – ‎4:40‎ – ‎7:05‎ – ‎9:30pm‎

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