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by: Scott Renshaw

THE BORROWERS is the kind of goofy charmer of a family adventure film Hollywood should be able to make it its sleep, if only it would bother. Instead, it took British Working Title Films to bring Mary Norton's popular children's novels to life.  The premise posits the existence of 4-inch-tall beings called Borrowers who live beneath the floorboards and in the walls of human homes, making their living off the bits and pieces we always seem to be misplacing -- a loose button for a plate here, a sock for a bed there.  In THE BORROWERS, a Borrower family called the Clocks -- papa Pod (Jim Broadbent), mama Homily (Celia Imrie) and children Arietty (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton) -- faces homelessness when nasty real estate developer Ocious P. Potter (John Goodman) schemes unscrupulously to nab the home of their human hosts, the Lenders.

The Clock family's quest to thwart Potter's plans, aided by young Pete Lender (Bradley Pierce), anchors an energetic story which begs a couple of very important questions.  First:  why can't more films employ special effects with THE BORROWERS' unobtrusive whimsy?  Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, production designer Gemma Jackson and cinematographers John Fenner and Trevor Brooker have joined forces to fashion a warm, visually enthralling world for the film's characters, in which the oversized props and camera trickery serve a purpose besides calling attention to themselves.  Humans and Borrowers interact convincingly, creating wild and thoroughly entertaining set pieces.  It's a great-looking, lively piece of work with neat bits of throwaway business -- a Monopoly card hung on the Clocks' wall like a Pop Art showpiece -- and a crisp pace.

The second, more disspiriting question:  when and why did it become obligatory for every children's film to aim for cheap chuckles from bodily functions?  For most of its running time, THE BORROWERS' slapstick comedy is disarming in its cartoonish innocence -- foam in the face, cheese on the head, exaggerated electrocutions and pratfalls.  Why, then, do we need to see Peagreen immersed in a massive pile of dog droppings?  Why the running gag about a flatulent hound?  Why an off-hand comment from Pete to his parents that he "has to pee?"  Is it really so difficult to fill 83 minutes with entertainment a parent can share with a child sans embarassment?  There's so much immagination throughout THE BORROWERS that it's even more disappointing to find it swinging so typically below the belt.

There's nothing particularly ground-breaking about the basic story-line of THE BORROWERS, which melds the recent MOUSE HUNT with a teen alienation sub-plot as Arietty longs to find other Borrowers.  The appeal of the film comes not from narrative wackiness, but from the complementary pairing of John Goodman's snarling villainy with the storybook delights of the film's overall look and feel.  Sure, it stumbles occasionally in the ways its most like most ostensibly "family films" of recent years.  It's the ways in which THE BORROWERS is least like its genre cousins which should make it satisfying matinee viewing.  This is fantasy escapism which doesn't make you feel stupid for escaping.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 borrowed times:  7.


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