The Borrowers (review)

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Beg, Borrow, and Steal

How nice to see Mary Norton’s Borrower novels come to life. As a kid I loved her books, the adventures of the teeny, tiny families with delightful names like the Overmantles and the Rafters who lived like mice in the houses of “Beans” (human beings), swiping what they needed from us: Sitting around their little tables on thread spools for chairs, they would feast on a single pea.

Cheery and light-hearted if a bit thin in the plot, The Borrowers will enchant kids and those who grew up with Norton’s books. Bored Borrower teen Arrietty Clock (Flora Newbigin), against her father Pod’s (Jim Broadbent) wishes, goes exploring in the Bean house one day and inadvertently breaks the First Rule of Borrowing: “A Borrower must never, ever be seen.” Arrietty gets caught like a lightning bug by 10-year-old Bean Pete Lender (Bradley Pierce), but they’re soon friends. Arrietty learns some horrifying news from Pete: The Lenders — Pete and his parents — will be moving soon, cheated out of their house by baddie lawyer Ocious P. Potter (John Goodman), who wants to demolish the house and build luxury apartments.
Arrietty and her little brother Peagreen (Tom Felton) team up with Pete to recover from Potter the will that rightfully grants the house to the Lenders, while Potter vows to rid the house of the Borrowers with the help of a “pest control operative” in a subplot reminiscent of but not half as clever as Mouse Hunt.

Small children may find The Borrowers a trifle intense — Potter does call the little people “vermin” and threatens them rather nastily — but that’s made up for by the movie’s amiable lessons. Kids’ anxieties about moving house and exploring the world behind home get play, and The Borrowers could be seen as a gentle parable about tolerance and learning not to misunderstand other groups of people.

For adults and non-Borrower fans, the most interesting aspect of The Borrowers may be the clever production design. Their world is on “the edge of the 21st century,” says Potter, yet he and everyone else are surrounded by round TVs with rabbit-ear antennas, cars with fins and running boards, and timeless fashions. Even Potter’s cell phone has a definite 50s design. This kind of generic 20th century has been the center of such recent movies as The Truman Show and Babe, but it was first seen in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one of the most innovative movies of the last 20 years. I’m fascinated by the fact that Brazil‘s influence reaches now even into children’s movies.

Add British comedians Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax in small roles (British comedy fans may recognize Jim Broadbent as well), and The Borrowers, while probably not a complete thrill for most, at least has a little something for everyone.

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