Surprisingly, Peter Hewitt’s 1997 film was the first big-screen adaptation of Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s novel; arriving not long after the BBC series, the Working Title production ditches much beyond the basic premise, instead devising a new story around the tiny Clock family and their “borrowing” habits and giving Arrietty a younger brother into the bargain.
The plot itself is rather slight, revolving around the plight of the Lender family, whose house is due to be demolished after their aunt dies, apparently without leaving a will. In fact, her lawyer Ocious P. Potter (a broadly odious John Goodman, enjoying himself immensely) is keeping the will a secret so he can demolish the house and build Potter Towers in its place, and when the Lender’s young son Pete discovers the Borrowers’ existence, he and the Clock children join forces to save their home.
And that’s about it. Children’s movies tend to be less about plot and more about the confluence of activity and story, and on these counts The Borrowers scores very highly. Hewitt’s cameras are rarely still, gently panning and tracking through the slower scenes and delivering the punctuating incident with clarity and not a little panache. Jim Broadbent and Celia Imrie are perfectly cast as the Clock parents Pod and Homily, while Mark Williams puts in an appearance as the local pest exterminator and Gregory House himself turns up as a considerate if rather clueless policeman.
The effects, of which there are necessarily plenty, have generally aged rather well, there being only a couple of instances where they are overly obvious, and in fact the film itself has aged much better in its two decades than might have been expected, due to Hewitt’s decision to give the entire project a very 1950s aesthetic, in spite of the use of mobile phones and suchlike. The whole film has been shot through an orange filter, which combines with the green visual cues to create an ambience of nostalgia that sets the existence of the Borrowers in a familiar yet entirely fictional universe, one that suits them nicely. The use of a largely American cast as the human “Beans”, and even the alternative 4:3 presentation of the film – perhaps a hangover of its arrival shortly before the DVD-inspired 16:9 revolution – are further affectations that help to perpetuate the illusion of timelessness.
The younger cast, quite obviously placed as identification characters for watching children, all acquit themselves impeccably, making this a fast-moving and attractive proposition for junior viewers and adults alike, who will find plenty to amuse in the plot. While Norton aficionados might find the liberties taken with the text somewhat off-putting, for anyone else this is a delightful and inclusive confection.
THE BORROWERS (1997) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: PETER HEWITT / SCREENPLAY: GAVIN SCOTT, JOHN KAMPS / STARRING: JOHN GOODMAN, JIM BROADBENT, MARK WILLIAMS, CELIA IMRIE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW