In these paradox-ridden times, producers on the hunt for cutting-edge fantasies look back -- they visit their boyhood or girlhood rooms and ransack their old books and videos, or peruse their studio's property list for works that scored well in other media. In the mid-'90s, the English company Working Title made two affectionate miniseries based on Mary Norton's books about a thumb-size English race called the Borrowers. These minuscule yet spunky folk live (in secret) under floorboards and borrow what they need from full-size people. Both miniseries reappeared as highly promoted home videos. Now, as the ads pointedly proclaim, Working Title has raided the source again for the Borrowers' first BIG screen adventure, featuring a BIG American comedy star, John Goodman, and up-to-the-minute digital effects.
Goodman plays a lawyer named Ocious P. Potter (presumably after the loathsome banker in It's a Wonderful Life). At his best, Goodman is worth his weight in pratfalls -- his Potter resembles a ruddy slime stuffed into a pinstriped suit. He has a peculiarly well-matched antagonist in the great British character actor Jim Broadbent, who plays Pod Clock, the head of a Borrower family. Broadbent's hilarious declamatory style cuts through the film like a foghorn. When Pod goes on a borrowing raid, pillaging a household for supplies, the effects are snappy and ingenious; the Borrowers improvise Rube Goldberg climbing machines before our eyes. But some of the comedy is crude and (literally) cheesy, and the film has nary a trace of emotion. At 83 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but it doesn't stay with you, either. From its humble beginnings in the family kitchen to its cliffhanger climax in the cheese-works of a dairy, The Borrowers is almost as hyperactive as a Hong Kong action film. It's high-caloric filmmaking, totally consumed in the watching.
Quaintness and nostalgia are built in to Norton's original stories, which have the intricate decoration of Victorian dollhouses, complete with such charmingly dated props as miniature books and eyebrow combs. In the opening pages of the first Borrowers tale, someone explains, "Nowadays, I suppose, if [Borrowers] exist at all, you would only find them in houses which are old and quiet and deep in the country -- and where the human beings live to a routine. Routine is their safeguard. They must know which rooms are to be used and when. They do not stay long where there are careless people, or unruly children, or certain household pets." On the assumption that no '90s moviegoer would sit still for such a dulcet setting, this version of The Borrowers shatters all routine immediately. Potter swindles away the ancestral manse of the (yes) Lender family. He pockets their aunt's last will and testament and prepares to demolish the house to make room for a plush apartment complex. He doesn't realize that he's catalyzing an unprecedented partnership -- between the Lenders' son, Pete (Bradley Pierce), and a slew of Borrowers headed by the Clocks.
The result is a helter-skelter chase movie whose pacing and gestalt owe more to Toy Story than to Norton's children's classics. On the plus side, director Peter Hewitt (Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) has a talent for mischievous storybook imagery. It's no small achievement for the extraordinary amount of "product placement" to register amusingly, not oppressively, from the Johnson and Johnson's dental floss that Pod uses as rope to the Wisk bottle that serves as his family's traveling case. The anytime-anyplace ambience has a '50s comic-book intrigue. The original book is set in an old village; here the Lenders live in a brickish and brackish region of a semi-recharged metropolitan area, with skyscrapers and zeppelins on the horizon; other characters, like a policeman and an exterminator, have the blocky, overly neat look of the friendly narrators in grade-school educational pamphlets. The Borrowers' cunning makeshift furniture and costuming always give you visual goods to savor. What redeems the sketchy flirtation between Pod's daughter (Flora Newbegin) and a street-wise Borrower named Spiller (Raymond Pickard) -- the homebound Clocks are "innies"; Spiller is an "outtie" -- is his marvelous roller-skate hot rod.
Unfortunately, there's no thread of feeling to bind all the clever bits together -- despite Broadbent's inventive, funny performance. I love how he explains "the Borrower way" in a furry kind of bellow (a Borrower is, among other things, quiet, alert, ingenious, brave, and "very good at climbing"). But the calmer miniseries gave Ian Holm, in the same role, the chance to sustain a haunting note of furtive anxiety. The movie primes you to root for the Borrowers but doesn't make you care for them. Even in this ultrakinetic form, Norton's very little people may provide us "normal" humans with a ticklish explanation for any small thing lost around the house. But what the moviemakers have lost is initially inconspicuous, ultimately crucial: a respect for childhood things in all their innocent simplicity.