Maybe you remember earlier movie adaptations of Mary Norton's 1952 classic children's novel The Borrowers. There's been a live-action feature film, two made-for-TV movies and one TV miniseries. And if you don't remember them, or possibly have never heard of The Borrowers at all, here's the story: a family of tiny little people live inside the walls of a house, taking bits and scraps of this and that to make their own life, hoping not to be discovered. Then they are discovered. Think of it in terms of small creatures who make a big difference, much like The Cricket in Times Square or Charlotte's Web, only with little people instead of a talking cricket or a brainiac spider. Sort of. And if you don't know those stories either then stop going to see so many movies and read a book or two instead. I can only help you so much.
The enduring appeal of this story is its human warmth and kindness and, at least in the versions that have existed so far, a kind of uniquely British tea-and-biscuits coziness. So for fans, a version set in the Japanese countryside may seem like a bit of a leap, but that concern will last for about as long as it takes to come face to face with a family film that already sets the bar extremely high for whatever other animated features are coming down the road in 2012.
Arrietty is one of the "borrowers" living inside the country home of a gravely ill and extremely lonely young boy named Shawn. When he discovers her and her family, he wants to befriend them -- and in one of the film's more emotionally satisfying sequences, uproots a cherished vintage dollhouse kitchen (with a fully working stove) and places it under the floorboards for them -- but to the little people any intrusion or discovery is inherently dangerous. Big humans are not to be trusted. Meanwhile, Shawn's family's housekeeper thinks of the little houseguests as insects to be eradicated rather than as people, so the tiny tenants have good reason to freak out over being found out.
In the wrong hands, the emphasis of the story could turn to the difference in scale between the two worlds, with a focus on wild adventure at the expense of feeling. But this comes from Japan's Studio Ghibli, the people who made Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, some of the best animated films of the past two decades. Ask the Pixar people who they admire most and this is the studio they'll tell you about. Ghibli animation fuses modern technology with old-school craftsmanship, with the highest level of attention paid to detail. The imagery in this studio's body of work is so beautiful you could watch the films with the sound off.
And while this story isn't epic or complex like Spirited Away or Mononoke, its quieter, gentler tone and more deliberate pace is just as satisfying. It's genuinely human and unafraid of difficult subjects like illness and death and it's generously expressive in a way that never feels like you might drown in goo, moving you in the best way possible, like Up or any of the Toy Story films. The round-up of the best movies of 2012 -- animated or not -- starts here.
And yes, of course, go read the book, too.