There were a lot of kids at the matinee screening of The Secret World of Arrietty. I was almost embarrassed to ask for a ticket; I think I was the only young adult there. At the end of the day my experience watching this film was an enjoyable one, in terms of audience behavior (the kids were actually quiet!) and the elements of the actual film. Studio Ghibli has managed to produce another masterpiece, and to my astonishment, Miyazaki was not director.
Based on the children's novel, The Borrowers, the film follows the Lilliputian-like family of Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty as they hide within the home of Jessica, who is a full-size human. Their survival is sustained through “borrowing” things that no one will notice is missing, such as a single sugar cube or a few crackers. One afternoon a sickly boy named Shawn moves into his aunt Jessica's home, nearly spotting Arrietty as she explores the yard. She is intrigued by him, but her father Pod warns that if their family is spotted, they will have to move to ensure their safety; there aren't many Borrowers like themselves left in the world, at least few that they know of. Little does our tiny Borrower family know that Shawn and Jessica are vaguely aware of their existence and look forward to seeing them someday. The housemaid, Hara, doesn't feel the same way, and upon suspecting that the Borrowers are within the home, calls the neighborhood pest-control team to capture them.
The story is lighthearted and arguably juvenile to a casual viewer. The theme of miniature beings hiding amongst us has been addressed numerous times in American child films such as The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), Toy Story (1995), Stuart Little (1999), and An American Tail (1986). Studio Ghibli, with a finesse they've come to master over the years, creates a child-like fantasy capable of fascinating the adult mind. The obvious Miyazaki tropes of communing with nature and avoiding violence are muted. Such themes are instead expressed through the lives of the Borrowers, who interact with and live within nature because of the need to avoid humans. Watching them climb vines and table legs with grappling hooks is unexpectedly interesting, betraying any notions of Arrietty being perceived as a simple kid's movie.
Arrietty and Homily.
Concerning the film's characters, Arrietty as protagonist is refreshing for those who don't care much for shonen anime's obnoxious, “I'm gonna fight until I unleash my true potential!” masculinity. Arrietty is curious and adventurous, practically begging for trouble as she roams Jessica's home against her parent's wishes. She doesn't go through any profound character development; the film is only ninety minutes long. But she manages to keep one's attention from beginning to end, and personally I liked her a lot. Bridgit Mendler, who voiced Arrietty, does a good job of not sounding too juvenile nor too adult. In a more critical assessment of the characters I'll say that Homily, Arrietty's mother, was the funniest and had the best voice actress in Amy Poehler. Her previous comedic work shines brilliantly through her voice acting.
Shawn is initially creepy. He speaks softly and says morbid things to Arrietty when they finally meet face to face. Understandably, Shawn is soon going into the operating room and might die, but such lengthy existentialist dialogue in the middle of an otherwise lighthearted film reminds viewers that they're watching Japanese anime, not an American cartoon. Shawn's voice is also odd; the male voice actors in Ghibli English dubs are usually soft-spoken to the point where hearing them becomes an issue. Shawn, voiced by David Henrie sounds like a twenty year-old and not a pre-adolescent child. It is for this reason that women are commonly cast to voice younger males. Pod's voice on the other hand is hilariously suitable for a man of few words, low and stern like Clint Eastwood.
Studio Ghibli's visual style hasn't changed much in its twenty-seven year history, save for adapting modern digital technology in its productions. The animation in The Secret World of Arrietty is composed of simple character designs, lush outdoor scenes and detailed interiors. The verdant greens of the outdoors are painted in a uniquely Impressionistic manner at times; details in trees or shrubs are traded in favor of patches of color, as if Claude Monet was revived and commissioned to paint backgrounds. At other times, when we are at Arrietty's eye level and close to the ground, the amount of detail on the grassy fields and their flowers is magnificent. There isn't much else to say about the animation, which is why I include photos in my reviews. If one has previously seen a Ghibli film, then they know what to expect.
Arrietty and Shawn.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a wonderful film for both whiny, snot-nosed children and mature adults. Lest I make this out to be a film everyone will love, I will say it lacks the usual musical numbers Americans are accustomed to in their “G” rated animation, but that's a matter of preference and doesn't harm this film in the least. I found the pacing to be a tad slow, and the film's antagonist bothered me a lot. Hara's motivations for seeking the Borrowers was never made clear. She disliked them and wanted to capture them, but for what purpose? Was she going to put them on display in a Ripley's Believe it or Not! museum? She wasn't sinister as much as she was mysterious. If anything, there's a crow in the film that tries to eat Arrietty, and he was more of a villain than Hara ever was.
I must sincerely congratulate Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of this film. While Miyazaki might have co-wrote the script, I strongly believe that Yonebayashi has made a firm impression in the minds of those who see “Studio Ghibli” and “Miyazaki” as interchangable terms. Miyazaki's not getting any younger, and someone's going to need to carry on his prolific legacy.
* The Secret World of Arrietty was produced by Studio Ghibli and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
- Elijah Lee