The Borrower Arrietty (articles)

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Los Angeles Times

3 February 2012

‘Secret World of Arrietty’ director on the beauty of Studio Ghibli

By Noelene Clark

Gary Rydstrom is a wizard with sound. In the last three decades, he’s worked with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Pixar, racking up seven Oscars and nine more nominations for his contributions to such films as “Titanic,” “Minority Report,” “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” and “Finding Nemo,” among others. Although the new film “The Secret World of Arrietty,” the latest production from Japan’s revered animation house Studio Ghibli, finds Rydstrom in the director’s chair for the second time, he’s sticking close to his field of expertise — he directed the actors as they recorded the audio portion of the English-language release of the film, which Disney is opening in the U.S. on Feb. 17.

Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the Japanese screenplay for the film, which is based on “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book about tiny people who live in the nooks and crannies of human homes, “borrowing” what they need to survive. Rydstrom says it’s a bit more straightforward than many of the myth- and fantasy-filled films to come from Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki co-founded in 1985.

“It’s a very simple story, but it’s beautifully told,” Rydstrom said. “It comes from an English book from an English author, from a Japanese studio. We threw in our American cast, and the music, which is beautiful, is done by a lovely French composer [Cécile Corbel], so it’s incredibly international.”

Like many in the industry, Rydstrom describes himself as a “huge fan” of Studio Ghibli’s productions — he previously helmed the audio for the U.S. release of Ghibli’s film “Tales From Earthsea,” based on the book by Ursula K. Le Guin. “It’s nice when a studio has such an identifiable sensibility,” Rydstrom said. “They make movies like no other animation studios make them. I love movies that feel like they are done by human beings that have such a personal and sometimes quirky and unique style to them, and all their movies do. … There’s also a beauty in how they use animation to study the most minute moments of life.”

“Arrietty,” Rydstrom says, is no different.

“It’s full of little moments about how the raindrops hit the leaves, and how nature reacts to humans and tiny humans running through it. There’s an observation to life that Studio Ghibli has, a beautiful observation to life that’s completely unique.”

“Arrietty,” the directorial debut of Studio Ghibli’s youngest director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, was critically praised and a box office hit when it opened in Japan in 2010. The film received three subsequent translations: a French dub, a U.K. dub featuring the voice of Saoirse Ronan, and Rydstrom’s American release.

“It might be a weird thing for me to see the U.K. version, the same way it probably is for the Japanese filmmakers to see our version. Probably disconcerting to see your movie with completely different actors,” Rydstrom said. “I don’t feel in competition with it at all. It’s funny, this is a way that various people then, with a new cast, a new director, a new writer, can reinterpret the same movie. Someday maybe it will be a good term paper or a thesis for someone to figure out how the U.K. and American versions differ.”

Karey Kirkpatrick, whose credits include “Charlotte’s Web” and “Chicken Run,” wrote the U.S. screenplay, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy cast the film, and Rydstrom worked with the actors to make the unnatural, mechanical process of voicing a character in a vacuum more organic.

“If this was my movie, my animation movie, we’d be working with the actors first,” Rydstrom said. “We’d be finding the lines and the characters and what was good, and then once we’d cut that and liked that, we would animate to that. This is already animated. We have to make English fit into the timing of the original Japanese, make sense to us as an audience, and then the actors have to make it seem natural. A lot of what I was doing was making sure that the actors felt comfortable enough with the process to still be natural. Because they have to pay attention to timing as well as emotion, and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a weird, backwards way of approaching a movie, and it’s also not my movie. It’s Studio Ghibli’s movie, and we want to be true to the original spirit of the movie as much as possible.”

Rydstrom says his job was made easier by a talented cast of experienced comedy actors, including Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and one of Rydstrom’s heroes, Carol Burnett. “What I liked is every one of these famous-in-comedy actors worked against what their normal type would be in a movie,” Rydstrom said. “Carol Burnett, who’s usually such a nice, lovable person — she’s played a few bad characters, like in “Annie” — but she really sunk her teeth into this role, which is the bad guy in the movie, this maid, who is this underhanded, sneaky, cruel character. And she played it to the hilt, so that was my favorite.”

Arnett, usually seen in quirky or sarcastic roles, played an “earnest, direct” father with a dash of “cool dude” action hero, he said, and Poehler played a high-strung, worry-wart mother. “She made the character, which could have been shrill and annoying, she made this character lovable,” Rydstrom said.

But the real star, who “carries the movie,” he said, is Bridgit Mendler, the 19-year-old “Wizards of Waverly Place” actress who voiced Arrietty, a naive and curious 14-year-old Borrower girl who befriends a human boy.

Arrietty, left, voiced by Bridgit Mendler, is a tiny girl with a strong will. She shows her mother Homily, voiced by Amy Poehler, an object she borrowed while on a mission with her father in Studio Ghibli's "The Secret World of Arrietty." (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

“Bridgit was able to act with her voice and give a real personality and sparkle to the performance, and you like her the moment you hear her,” Rydstrom said. “I was utterly impressed with her the whole time that we worked on this. When you’re doing this kind of thing, you watch actors come in and start doing their lines and start building up a character. It’s amazing to see what they bring to the movie with their voice acting. … There’s a difference acting with your voice only, and your voice has to carry all the funniness and warmth and personality that you can sometimes rely on your facial expressions and your body actions for.”

Rydstrom, who is currently working on sound for the upcoming Pixar film, “Brave,” said he’d love to direct more features. He was slated to direct “Newt,” a Pixar film he co-wrote, but the project was pushed back and then presumably canceled.

“That’s not happening, or at least not happening now, but we developed it over a couple of years,” Rydstrom said. “I’m trying to be open to any possibility for things in the future, but right now in my career, I’m getting a chance to do a variety of things, which is nice to do. Sound design, which I’ve done for years, and still love to do, and these Studio Ghibli movies, I really enjoy the challenge. It uses talents I have from my sound career in post-production in an interesting way, and I get to work with actors, which it turns out that I really love. So I’m open to any and all opportunities down the road.”

Los Angeles Times

12 February 2012

'Arrietty,' 'The Borrowers' and the appeal of all things small
The childhood fascination with the littlest of things comes to life in the animated Japanese film 'Arrietty,' which takes on Mary Norton's classic book 'The Borrowers.'

By Jerry Griswold, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Kids — tykes, urchins, tots, moppets, bambinos, waifs, ragamuffins, cherubs and small fry — are fascinated by smallness. Consider their films: "Antz," "A Bug's Life," "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Toy Story," "The Rescuers," "The Secret of NIMH," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Stuart Little" and countless others. Indeed, a nod to the diminutive seems nearly obligatory if titles of children's stories are any measure: "Little Red Riding Hood," "Little Women," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Little Prince," "The Little Engine That Could," and so on. Now comes "The Secret World of Arrietty," a tale of the tiny.

With a screenplay by anime genius Hayao Miyazaki ("Ponyo," "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle") and produced by his Studio Ghibli, "Arrietty" was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2010. When it was released elsewhere, it was warmly received by reviewers, who praised its visual artistry in an era in which others have turned to 3-D effects. Now with English-speaking voices (among them Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett and Will Arnett), the animated feature is being released in the U.S. this week by Disney.

Depending on how you count, "Arrietty" is either the fourth or fifth film based on the classic children's book about smallness, "The Borrowers," and in spirit, it is a fairly faithful rendition of Mary Norton's 1952 novel. The story concerns 6-inch-high people who live a secret existence underneath the floorboards of a country home. They are called "Borrowers" because they borrow (blotting paper for rugs, postage stamps for wall paintings, chess pieces for statuary) from the big people upstairs, a race of conventionally sized folks they call "human beans."

Norton's fantasy primarily concerns one family of Borrowers, the Clocks: Arrietty (a plucky 14-year-old girl), Pod (her enlightened father, who, despite her gender, takes his only child on his foraging expeditions) and Homily (her fearful mother, whose anxiety about their precarious existence amounts to the dominant tone of the book).

The great danger of a Borrower is "being seen" by big people. As it happens, Arrietty is seen on one of her expeditions and eventually enters into a secret friendship with the Boy (called Shawn in the film), someone who brings Golden Days to the minuscule Clock family by providing purloined dollhouse furniture and other treats (note: a sugar cube can satisfy a village). Nonetheless, dangers abound in the form of a cat, a snoopy housemaid and ultimately a pest control firm.

Since the book's publication, it has become a parlor game among critics to suggest whom the Borrowers represent. If inspired by her memories of World War II, Norton's vulnerable people may picture the British sheltering from German bombers and taking refuge in the country. Or given their shrinking numbers and their penchant for borrowing, Norton's creatures may be stand-ins for the Travelers, that gypsy-like race still found along the byways of England and Ireland. Or the answer may be simpler: Norton's homunculi may really present the situation of kids in a world of towering adults.

Kids understand how size correlates with power. Adults talk over their heads. At McDonald's, they can't see over the counter to order and they can't pay for a meal with their own credit card. Indeed, restaurants kindly provide high chairs and booster seats in the same way they provide wheelchair access. When Tom Hanks magically changes from a kid into an adult and gets his own apartment and a job on Madison Avenue, the movie is called "Big." Likewise linking size and power, billionaire Leona Helmsley famously said, "Only the little people pay taxes."

That's not to say small fry can't take advantage of their size. That rascal Peter Rabbit goes places where the portly Mr. McGregor can never pursue him. The diminutive Stuart Little does a favor by slipping into a sink drain to recover a lost wedding ring. And Tom Thumb and Jack (once he climbs the beanstalk) are tricksters who have their way with the humongous.

But when it comes to power, nothing reveals the childhood fascination with smallness so much as the appeal of the microcosm. The dollhouse, the toy theater, the action figures on the rug — there is an impulse at work in the early years to replicate the world in miniature and then tower over it. This may explain, incidentally, the appeal of Legoland, where, with its 20-to-1 scale, even a tot can feel like King Kong looming over a replica Empire State Building.

Musing on this topic of scale, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that everyone who can remember childhood, watching ants and other insects, "must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies." Of course, it's just a tiny step from there to "Gulliver's Travels," where an Englishman lying on a grassy sward is trussed up by Lilliputians.

This is the world the Borrowers inhabit: where a drop of water is a pending threat to those below, where a ticking clock causes the floor to vibrate and where tissue paper is stiff and loud. It is the same world where Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina is "pelted" by a snowflake and where E.B. White's mouse-sized Stuart Little must manhandle a straw when proffered a drink. A change of scale makes us see the ordinary with different eyes.

Here lies the secret behind "The Borrowers": Mary Norton was nearsighted as a child and wasn't diagnosed until she went to boarding school. Later, talking about herself in the third person, Norton confessed that recalling her life before glasses made it easier for her to imagine a race of tiny people, living close at hand and among the ants: "She saw through their eyes the great lava-like (sometimes almost steaming) lakes of cattle dung — chasms to them, whether wet or dry. It would take them, she thought, almost half an hour of tottering on ridges, helping one another, calling out warnings, holding one another's hands before, exhausted, they reached the dry grass beyond.

Nearsightedness is a kind of image for childhood's fascination with smallness. The young pay attention to things close at hand. Nearing 90 years old, poet John Masefield looked back at his youth and recalled how he could spend hours looking into his box of toy soldiers and marbles. The young and the old, Masefield insisted, see the world differently: "The child knows his mile, or at most his two miles, better than a grown-up knows his parish."

There are implications to this. Because the young see the world differently, implicitly, their points of view challenge the unquestioned and consensual values of adults. One day, Stuart Little serves as a substitute teacher and asks his tiny charges what's really important in life. The kids do not mention wealth or fame or even, say, upcoming elections. They agree that what's really important in life is "the way the back of a baby's neck smells." Who's to say they're wrong?

Griswold is the former director of the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is "Feeling Like a Kid."

Los Angeles Times

17 February 2012

'The Secret World of Arrietty' has a fairytale in its music

By Todd Martens - Pop & Hiss music blog

American audiences will first hear the music of French composer Cécile Corbel in "The Secret World of Arrietty," the latest fairy tale from Studio Ghibli. Yet the story of how Japan's revered animation house plucked the harpist from near-obscurity is one ripe for motion-picture folklore itself.

Corbel packed her music with a letter and mailed the package on an inter-continental journey to Ghibli headquarters and awaited a response that she knew likely wouldn't come. "I wrote a letter to the head producers over there and I was not expecting much," said Corbel, who spoke to Pop & Hiss via a translator. The artist has released multiple albums in her native country, and said she was drawn to the works of Studio Ghibli -- "Ponyo" and "Howl's Moving Castle," among them -- for the way in which they blend ecological themes with fanciful storytelling that pulls from ancient, mythical beliefs.

"I sent them my latest album as a sort of a fan thing," she said. "I never thought I'd be working for the studio. I truly expected nothing in return."

What's more, the composer continued to be surprised at how the music remained untouched as the film was released around the globe. "The Secret World of Arrietty" opens in the U.S. Friday, brought to these shores courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. The latter added a song from Bridgit Mendler, the Disney Channel star who is the U.S. voice of Arrietty, but the new song appears in the credits and doesn't supplant any of Corbel's more delicate, airy work.

"We talked about Bridgit resinging one of the songs but we ultimately decided that wasn't that good of an idea," said veteran producer Frank Marshall, who also had a production credit on the English-language edition of "Ponyo." "Cécile's songs are so unique and we wanted to keep the film as it was. We've done two of these now and we've very respectful of what Ghibli has created. Our job is to tweak it a bit for the North American audience, but the music is so universal that it works wonderfully in the film."

Corbel's harp work draws on Celtic and folk traditions, and it gives "The Secret World of Arrietty," the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a far more subtle backdrop than the traditional orchestral score. It's also very exact and tiny, reflecting the world of the film, which is based on “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book about the minuscule people who live in the nooks and crannies of big people's homes.

"When I first saw the movie I was kind of surprised," Marshall said of the music. "It's so unusual for the movie. It's not Japanese instruments, yet it completely works because this world that we're watching could be anywhere."

Corbel said she received a letter back from director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who co-wrote the Japanese screenplay for the film. He asked Corbel to write one song, the theme for the film's main character of Arrietty. Upon enthusiastically accepting her assignment, she was given a series of sketches for the film, as well as character and plot summaries in the form of short poems. One song soon turned into 20.

"They sent a lot of their intentions in the form of poems, small poems, just a few lines," Corbel said. "They wanted me to write one song for each of the poems. Each of the poems was relating to one particular part of the movie. The creative process was really free. I just had to feel out the emotions that were described in the poems."

Corbel, being a student of the studio, knew the opportunity was a rare one. In addition to having to overcome a language barrier, she was well aware of the fact that Studio Ghibli regularly turns to Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi for its films. She had to resist the urge to over-think her good fortune.

"One of the hardest things was to stick to what they liked in my music and not try to make it film music," she said. "I wanted to remain very simple and subtle in the arrangements. They didn't want it to have orchestral music, which they had in many other Ghibli movies. They wanted something more acoustic."

A chase scene, in particular, gave Corbel plenty to stress over. Much of her music is warm, marked by vocals that are celestial and enchanting, and create a lush, pastoral setting that invites an intimacy between screen and moviegoer. For scenes in which a quicker tempo was needed, Corbel infused her classical stylings with upbeat hand percussion.

"When they wanted something frightening and fun, those are two words that don't always fit with my music," Corbel said. "It was hard to reach feelings that are not necessarily in my own music."

Helping both her and the film, she believed, was the fact that the score and animation were done concurrently. "The basic idea from Ghibli was to have all the emotion and feelings already inside the music, and then you bring that to the movie," she said.

With the Disney connection, Marshall resisted, at least until the final moments of the interview, of comparing Corbel's story to any wish-upon-a-star magic. "Dreams do come true, but Ghibli ultimately had to have the guts to take this chance," he said. "They have a wonderful vision about the films they make and she just clicked with them. It's a really cool thing that something like this can still happen."