The palm-size people who live under the floorboards and the full-size “human beans” with whom they cohabit in Mary Norton’s classic series of jolly children’s books are indubitably English. But in The Borrowers (PolyGram), a charming family feature directed by Peter Hewitt (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) that “borrows” from Norton’s literary legacy, the little Borrowers are more or less British, the big Lender family is kind of American, and the fairy-tale house in which they all live is loosely rooted in the 1950s, with various contemporary home improvements (such as a TV remote control) thrown in. This smooshing of time and place deepens the fable: What we have here are resilient, sunset-of-the-Empire Brits scuttling around the ankles of cloddish Yanks.
John Goodman personifies cloddishness to a fare-thee-well, packed into an American gangster-style sharpie suit and giddily doing villain’s work as an evil land developer scheming to steal the Lenders’ house out from under them. Goodman huffs and sneers, but he’s no match for the agile Borrower family, who (headed by the excellent Jim Broadbent from Bullets Over Broadway) turn small items — pens, postage stamps, walnut shells — into tools for living and devise a way to save the Lenders, and the Borrowers, too.
That the construction of this magical universe is so complete, so full of personality (no manufactured whiff of Honey, I Shrunk the Brits here), is to the credit of production designer Gemma Jackson and visual-effects supervisor Peter Chiang. The two have created a world of such casual, unsplashy technological ingeniousness that the shifting perspectives feel totally believable, and the sight of tiny Brits in outfits made of household scraps is as natural to the American eye as that of life-size Brits in gowns and breeches speaking dialogue by Jane Austen. A-