The Austin Chronicle

The Borrowers

Rated PG, 87 min. Directed by Peter Hewitt. Starring John Goodman, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie, Flora Newbigin, Tom Felton, Mark Williams, Bradley Pierce.

REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Feb. 13, 1998

Beginning in 1952, and spanning three decades, author Mary Norton wrote a series of children's books based on a family of tiny people who reside beneath the floorboards of an old country house “borrowing” the odd needle or matchbox in order to fashion ingenious and useful miniature furnishings. Filled with that peculiarly British blend of silliness and stolidity, the books are engaging, hilarious tales of the Clock family -- Pod, Homily, and Arietta -- whose well-being depends upon the dreaded creatures who live and tower above them. It's a foolhardy pastime, comparing movies to books, and hardly fair when you're dealing with memories of beloved childhood favorites. Still, one can hardly look the other way when a classic book is given what I've come to think of as the dreaded Home Alone treatment. Which is to say, the film makes the assumption that it can't possibly be entertaining unless somebody is constantly slimed with disgusting goo or burnt to a hair-curling crisp or speared in the rear with a sharp object. Oh, the film doesn't totally forsake its namesake, but therein lies the rub. For the film captures just enough of the whimsical nuances of Norton's books to tantalize -- and disappoint. It whispers at imagination, hints at charm, and flirts -- briefly and carelessly -- with character development. All for naught. Arietta remains the focus of the story, a restless teenage borrower whose dreams of the great world beyond the floorboards lure her out into the open, touching off a great escapade. But her brush with the enormous world of the human “beans” and first encounter with a teenage boy borrower, both intrinsically momentous and magical occasions, are lost in the tumult of slapstick villainy. John Goodman too often fills the screen, his Ocious P. Potter a big, slow-witted buffoon of a bad guy, his exaggerated eyebrow motion and multiple double-takes a paltry substitute for acting. And brilliant British comic Hugh Laurie is shamelessly wasted as an officious bobbie who quite undeservedly saves the day. (If the writers had stuck to the book, he could have done a hilarious bit responding to a hysterical housekeeper's description of “dressed up mice,” but no such luck here.) Hewitt opts instead for style over story. The Borrowers is a sumptuous and incongruous jumble of varying time period elements but the effect is more distracting than intriguing. The stylish set design and brooding, sepia-toned lighting play at odds with the cartoon quality of the picture and the prevailing murkiness obscures (literally and figuratively) the action and the characters and dampens the spirits. No intoxicating ray of sunshine, no glimpse of a world full of adventure and enchantment beckons Arietta or the audience. The few scattered sparks of magic in The Borrowers simply cannot give light to all this dreariness.

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