As his first film in the main chair, Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed this sweet adaptation of The Borrowers for Studio Ghibli before he delivered the utterly magical When Marnie Was There four years later. In it you can see the skills that would take him to his next project, guided by the sure hand of Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises). The sense of production and framing, the rhythm of the story, and the depth of the characters (and lack of it at times) is all familiar if you’re an aficionado of Miyazaki’s opus. But Yonebayashi puts his stamp on it nonetheless, taking what he can from the master and flavoring it with his own sense of the story.
Hayao Miyazak and Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday), the heart and souls of Studio Ghibli, created the modern world of anime and have a delightfully abrasive relationship. Check out The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness to learn more.
Bridgit Mendler (Undateable) leads the voice cast with a sense of wonder and bravery that is both believable and delightful, especially in comparison to her always-panicked mother, Amy Poehler (Inside Out). With the addition of Will Arnett (The Lego Movie) as her father, the sense of the family dynamic and how she came into her own adds volumes to the viewing.
Opposite Mendler, David Henrie (Wizards of Waverly Place [and who was also the son on How I Met Your Mother]) plays her friend, who has his own story to tell. His story and point of view elevates the tale a little, but it is still very much the children’s story it is intended.
The true, special treat in this film is Carol Burnett as the somewhat stressed housekeeper. Her role could have been more, but she has a lot of fun playing it and you couldn’t ask for a better bit of voice talent for broad comedy.
Interestingly, there are two dubs of this film. The US release has the cast I’ve commented on. The European and NZ releases feature a very different set with Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Tom Holland (The Night Manager) in the leads supported by Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Olivia Coleman (Hyde Park on Hudson) as the parents and Geraldine McEwan (Agatha Christie’s Marple) in Burnett’s role. At some point I hope to get my hands on a copy of that cast as it would provide an interesting contrast and, honestly, probably a bit more depth than the US names (with the exception of an interesting bit of comedic battle between McEwan and Burnette).
I had mentioned the production values at the top. It isn’t just the art and inventiveness of the Borrower’s made objects that is done well. The team actually considered some of the physics as well, such as when trying to pour a drop of tea from a miniature tea pot which really added to the sense of reality. On the other hand, the veneer of Japanese culture over the story in the British countryside was a little odd. The easiest aspect to spot is the choice to have everyone taking off their shoes as they enter the house and put on slippers/houseshoes. It is directed naturally, but it is so clearly a choice made for their initial audience in Japan and doesn’t quite fit.
This film is every bit as magical and engaging as you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli movie. The quality of the drawing and the desire to create magic on screen come through. Getting to see the beginning of Yonebayashi’s growth as a director is a great bonus. If you appreciate anime and don’t mind a story that is a bit tilted toward children, it is one you should queue up.