Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Feb 17th 2012
The Secret World of Arrietty
Arrietty is part of a little-known race of tiny people called ‘Borrowers’, about two hairpins tall each, who live under human dwellings and “borrow” the necessities they need under cover of night, living in fear that they'll be discovered and have to move. A sick boy named Shawn moves in to the rambling country house Arrietty and her family live under, and naturally he's curious about the diminutive girl, who he spots fleeting through the grass one day. As the two form an unlikely bond, Arrietty's existence is threatened by Hara, the caretaker of the house who's convinced the Borrowers are just a bunch of thieving little pests.
At this point, the classic children's novel The Borrowers has been adapted a whole bunch of times – for television, film, comics, you name it – all to varying degrees of success. The Secret World of Arrietty is Studio Ghibli's attempt to take a stab at it, enlisting relative newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi to helm the film with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki providing the script. The result is a beautiful, carefully detailed and altogether pleasant wisp of a film that does absolutely everything – from the characters' personalities to the story construction to the emotional stakes that hold the whole thing together – in miniature.
The story opens with the eager and resourceful 14-year old Arrietty going on her first “Borrowing” – that is, her first foray with her stoic father into the dangerous human dwelling above to retrieve some sugar and tissue from the humans, things they need to “borrow” to make ends meet in their rustic little house under the floorboards. It's a charming sequence, and we learn everything we need to know (and will ever know) about Arrietty and her parents right up front; Arrietty is strong-willed and capable, her father is the soft-spoken man of duty who looks out for his family, and mom is always in the kitchen, worrying endlessly about everyone's safety in an environment where fear keeps them from interacting much with the world upstairs. Arrietty is discovered by Shawn, who catches them trying to pilfer a sheet of tissue paper, and immediately calls out in sympathy – he wants to be friends, but Arrietty has been taught to fear humans, and stays away. Of course, that doesn't last long, and soon the two are learning that they aren't so different, what with Shawn dealing with his own mortality and Arrietty wrestling with the notion that she and her folks may be the last of their kind.
The central conflict in the film is as light as all of its other components – the “villain”, aging busybody Hara, sees the Borrowers (which have lived on in the house in legends for generations) as nothing but little thieves. She calls an exterminator to trap them, having discovered their little house, capturing Arrietty's mom in the process. By the time this section of the story kicks in, Arrietty has befriended the ailing Shawn and they go on a particularly short rescue mission. That's about it. There aren't any other twists and turns in the story – we're made aware of the existence of other Borrowers by the appearance of Spiller, a forest-dwelling Borrower who speaks in a generic “savage” dialect; he lets the family know they can go upriver and join the rest of their kind. It all wraps up with a brief emotional moment between Shawn and Arrietty that doesn't quite feel earned – they become fast friends, Shawn helps her out, and boom, we're done, roll credits.
It's hard to fault The Secret World of Arrietty for feeling so light and small – that is, after all, clearly what it's aiming for, at least in terms of story scope. The problem, if it can be called that, arises when the film never fully connects with you or engages you beyond invoking the same fleeting sense of familiar comfort you might get from a warm cup of tea or a kitty in your lap. The characters are all drawn particularly thin – Arrietty doesn't change beyond learning that this one human she met once was a good guy, and Shawn claims Arrietty taught him to be brave in the face of his upcoming surgery, but we're never really shown the emotional connective tissue to support that. Hara's machinations feel particularly bloodless; even when she's kidnapping mom, there's no real sense of peril. The whole thing is like a very pretty balloon you hold on to for a second before it floats away; a nice little memory you may one day recollect for an instant before it wanders back into the ether.
The film likely would've been helped if it'd been given a little more breathing room. The story itself, minus credits, is barely 90 minutes, one of the shortest of Ghibli's theatrical offerings; as a result of that and the way the script is constructed, we're given very little time to get to know any of these characters and very little backstory is provided. Even a few more minutes of character building would've really helped create the sort of emotional resonance we've seen from countless other Ghibli works. There isn't really even much of a theme here, which is odd for a Miyazaki script – there's a brief hint at a thematic connection between Shawn's illness and Arrietty's extinction anxiety, but it's never explored or commented on beyond one scene where it's sort of explicitly stated by the two leads, and so we're left with very little to chew on.
Visually, The Secret World of Arrietty is yet another in the long tradition of Ghibli's aesthetic feasts. The Borrowers' underground world is rendered with the sort of lush acrylic look we're used to, with plenty of playful little details in the margins (particular attention was paid to the way water behaves in Arrietty's perspective). The animation is as gorgeous as can be expected, although there are no showy centerpieces this time; all the detail and beauty is in the backgrounds and in subtle movements, rather than in splashy theatrics a'la the tsunami sequence in Ponyo. There's a brief moment where the animation breaks out of the typical Ghibli style, when a crow comes barreling in on Arrietty outside Shawn's window and gets its head stuck in the window screen; the crow's expressions, in particular, stand out among all the saucer-eyed, gentle-faced Ghibli kids. It isn't a massive departure, but it's nice to see character animation in a Ghibli film driven by chaotic slapstick, no matter how brief the sequence is. There are a few long shots of Shawn lying in a sun-dappled flower field that are truly breathtaking; in all, the production design is sweet and carefully crafted to maintain the homespun warmth that holds the rest of the film together. The score is also uniformly gorgeous – there's a gentle Irish sound to it, with lots of acoustic guitar, harp, and light piano. There are a number of lilting vocal arrangements punctuating key scenes, moreso than ever in a Ghibli production, and it really adds to the storybook feel of the film.
Disney's English language dub (which was commissioned in the US, to be released in American theaters rather than using the film's existing UK dub) is, as expected, great. The lead cast is uniformly excellent; Disney channel newcomer Bridgit Mendler gives Arrietty a remarkably natural and heartfelt performance. Her parents, Pod and Homily, continue Disney's tradition of picking perfect choices for the parents in Ghibli films – real-life couple and beloved comic actors Will Arnett and Amy Poehler play dad and mom, respectively, and they knock it out of the park. Poehler in particular walks a very difficult line playing Homily, who could've easily been portrayed as an over-the-top worrywart; instead, Poehler's performance is nuanced, giving the character real emotion while still delivering some great laugh lines. Comedy legend Carol Burnett is clearly having a lot of fun with the role of Hara, sinking her teeth into the character's occasionally outsized expressions. David Henrie - another Disney channel regular – plays Shawn, and simply isn't given much to do in the role beyond sounding a little winded and tired, but he does very well with what he's been handed. It's a great dub, as we've come to expect; it's hard not to be curious about that UK dub, given the film's European visual trappings, but Disney has another production to be proud of here.
The Secret World of Arrietty may not have much beyond its effortlessly pleasant surface, and in the end – which comes before you know it – it might feel a little hollow, but it does, at the very least, do a narratively competent and entertaining job retelling a story that holds up as testament to the enduring strength of the source material. Ghibli's visual prowess is on full display once again, and it does seem like the sort of film older children may hold on to longer than most, thanks to subtle character interaction, mannered pacing and an understated, almost mundane sense of everyday magic. It's a shame there isn't more going on here, even when it comes to the film's basic story, but it's foolish to deny the simple, warm and familiar pleasures of Arrietty's world.
Overall (dub) : B
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Beautiful production design and animation, excellent dub, movie goes down smooth like a cup of tea
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