The trailer for the UK release of Studio Ghibli's "Arrietty" has been making the rounds, which will feature Saoirse Ronan in the title role. The Brits will get to see the film in theaters this August, six months before the American release in February, 2012, because different companies ended up with the distribution rights in each country. Optimum Releasing will be handling the UK distribution, and as with all the recent Ghibli films, Disney's Buena Vista has the North American distribution. According to Boxoffice Mojo and IMDB, it looks like Optimum has had the rights to distribute the Ghibli films as least as far back as "Spirited Away," though they previously used the Disney dubs. This is apparently the first time that Optimum has opted to dub one of the Ghibli films itself. Disney will still be doing its own version, featuring Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, and a couple of Disney Channel tween stars to play the kids - pretty much par for the course for them.
And now we're left with a dilemma. I've never had a problem with Disney's dubs of the Ghibli films, aside from some slight dumbing down of the scripts for younger audiences. They've done a great job of attracting good talent, and using Disney's considerable resources to turn out far more polished work than most other domestic anime dubbing outfits could ever hope to. Yet "Arrietty" is based on Mary Norton's "The Borrowers," a British series of children's books. It seems more fitting that "Arrietty" should have a dub featuring UK actors. And I'm sorry, but Saoirse Ronan wins out over Bridget Mendler from "Wizards of Waverly Place" no matter how you cut it. On the other hand, the Ghibli film rewrote the material so the story doesn't place in any particular place or culture. There's no reason why Arrietty shouldn't have an American accent. So there's no point in making comparisons or playing favorites until we've actually heard some of the Disney version.
I guess the question is whether the two different dubs are going to cause confusion, and if there might be enough demand for the UK dub among American viewers to affect the performance of the US one. I doubt the American audience was ever supposed to be aware of the British version, but in the age of the Internet, it was only a matter of time. The way the release dates are scheduled, the Optimum version of "Arrietty" might be released on DVD in the UK a month or two before it hits theaters in the US, and savvy, impatient Ghibli fans could easily import them. If Disney and Buena Vista are unhappy about this, they only have themselves to blame for dragging their feet. The film has already reached DVD in Japan and France, and will see theatrical release in most of the rest of Europe this summer. At the time of writing, the US is the last major market where "Arrietty" will be released.
But then, Disney doesn't have as much incentive. "Arrietty" has already been a substantial hit in much of the rest of the world, and banked north of $120 million, but Ghibli films generally don't do so well in the United States. The highest grossing Ghibli film in the US to date has been "Ponyo," which only pulled in $15 million, despite an unusually wide release in 927 theaters. "Arrietty" was expected to open in the US in 2011, and I worry that the delay signals that Disney might be tiring of the small returns and the difficulty in marketing these pictures. Opening in February also means that "Arrietty" won't be up for awards contention this winter, unless it's also getting a yet-to-be-announced limited release in December. Some have speculated that Disney might stop theatrically releasing future Ghibli features altogether and send them straight to DVD, where they make most of their money. This would be a shame, since the Ghibli films are always visually spectacular and really deserve to be seen on the big screen.
I for one am still waiting for "Arrietty" to reach theaters here in the US, but I'm also considering my options. I balked at the cost of importing a Japanese DVD, but the European and British ones aren't nearly as pricey, and I'm probably going to buy some version of "Arrietty" anyway. Since the British dub has a cast at least on par with the Disney one, and it's probably the only way I'll ever be able to get a look at that version, buying a Region 2 UK release instead of a US one is a very tempting possibility. Having two different English dubs out there might seem a little odd, but it's opening up some interesting new options here. This could turn out to be a good thing for Ghibli fans.