Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The sequel Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters has us reflecting on stellar kid-lit adaptations.
The Borrowers (1997) / The Secret World Of Arrietty (2012)
Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, published in 1952, won the U.K.’s Carnegie Medal and eventually spawned four sequels about the Clock family, specifically teenage daughter Arrietty Clock. The Clocks are “borrowers,” tiny people who live among humans (or “beans”)—usually in the walls and floors of their homes—and survive by borrowing (not stealing) items from their larger counterparts. Two feature films have attempted to capture the charm of the beloved modern classic, and they both spin interesting tales by taking the bare bones of the story and adding elements to suit their purposes.
The Borrowers, a 1997 live-action film, opens by tracking a Rube Goldberg machine built by the industrious human boy who suspects something’s amiss when items keep disappearing from his house. This extended shot pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie—a collection of whimsy and plot mechanics that seems on the brink of going off the rails, but is so charming and silly, it begs for forgiveness. This film reduces Arrietty’s role as the protagonist and piles on colorful secondary characters for flavor. An inheritance/nefarious-lawyer plot is introduced seemingly for the purpose of incorporating John Goodman as a villain. Jim Broadbent plays the borrower patriarch, Pod; Hugh Laurie appears as Officer Steady; and Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley in the Harry Potter films) is a borrower-friendly exterminator Goodman hires to kill the Clocks. Another plot point created just for the movie was the introduction of Peagreen (played by a very young Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Potter films) as the Clocks’ second child, whose purpose in the story is to require rescuing from a milk-bottling plant.
The 1997 film plays up the whimsy and gravity-defying acrobatics to such a degree it begs the question of whether The Borrowers might have been more successful if it had abandoned the notion of live-action and been an early-era Dreamworks animated film. Granted, this would have deprived audiences the visuals of Goodman’s facial aerobics and Laurie’s dismissive skepticism.
Swinging the pendulum in the other direction, Arrietty—or The Secret World Of Arrietty as it was titled in last year’s North American release—has no real discernable villain, as is usually the case with films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This adaptation retains far more of the original plot, with the borrowers having been discovered by a sick boy visiting the humans’ home for rest and recuperation. And the characterization of Arrietty is closer to that of the book: She’s back to being an adventurous only child, anxious to begin a life of borrowing. This film dials back the shrillness of her mother, Homily Clock, and the dottiness of her father, Pod (voiced by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett respectively, who only get a few dry, sarcastic lines to justify that incredible casting). Carol Burnett voices the home’s caretaker and serves as antagonist by calling pest control to rid the house of the Borrowers. In the U.S. version, Arrietty is voiced by Disney channel regular Bridgit Mendler, but the U.K. casting of Saoirse Ronan in the title role is intriguing enough to justify seeking out that version for comparison. Both films abandon the distinctly ’50s notion that borrowing is no activity for a girl. And although one of the few Ghibli offerings not directed by Hayao Miyazaki—who supervised production and co-wrote the script—The Secret World Of Arrietty could hold its own in a Ghibli film marathon that includes My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Availability: The Borrowers is available on DVD, available for purchase or rental through the major digital providers, and streaming on Netflix. The Secret World Of Arrietty is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and available through Netflix's disc delivery service.