Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Secret World of Arrietty
Fourteen-year-old Arrietty Clock and her parents Pod and Homily live in a beautiful old house hidden away in Japan...under the floorboards. They are “Borrowers,” a race of tiny people who secretly share houses with “human beans” and borrow what they need to survive. One of their strictest rules is that a Borrower can never be seen by a “bean” or else the family will have to move – this may be the reason why only Arrietty and her family remain in this particular house. As Arrietty begins to venture into the larger house on her “borrowings,” however, a twelve-year-old boy comes to stay for a few weeks. His appearance will challenge her family's teachings, and possibly make the way both children view the world.
Anime at times has a uniquely sad way of looking at Western literature, as anyone who has seen Gankutsuo: The Count of Monte Cristo, a retelling of Alexandre Dumas' novel can attest. While we didn't see that in Studio Ghibli's adaptation of Dianna Wynne Jones' YA fantasy novel Howl's Moving Castle (although other aspects of the book were tinkered with), their 2010 film version of Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers certainly highlights the more bittersweet aspects of tiny Arrietty's relationship with human boy Shawn, transforming a children's adventure story into a sweetly sad tale of first love. The adventure aspects of Norton's classic remain mostly intact, but the focus is shifted from the Clock family's borrowings to the friendship between the children, giving the film a more mature air than the book.
The story has been shifted from 1950s England to Japan in 2010, a move Hayao Miyazaki has said was designed to “offer courage and comfort to the people living in these chaotic, unsure times.” The house and the beneath-the-floor apartment, however, are essentially all times together and no time in particular – the kitchen appliances date to the late 20th century, Pod uses an electric lamp while Homily cooks over an open flame in a suspended kettle, Shawn reads decorative Victorian-style books, and the wallpaper could have come out of the 1940s. This style helps to make the story feel timeless, giving viewers the feeling that while such indications of contemporary life such as Shawn's impending heart surgery and a delivery man's cell phone exist, the story could just as easily take place fifty years ago or thirty years from now. These setting details not only provide our eyes with plenty of tiny things to notice – I actually enjoyed second and third viewings of the film more than the first with each new detail I spotted – but also work towards Miyazaki's stated reason for creating the movie: just because it is taking place in this place and time does not mean that it cannot, and has not/will not, happen anywhere.
The film opens with Shawn (Sho in the sub) arriving at his Aunt Jessica's home in the countryside to rest up before he has to undergo a serious operation. (Book readers will notice that the aunt's name has been changed from “Sophy,” presumably because of Howl's heroine; in Japanese her name is Sadako.) They are immediately prevented from driving up to the house by the housekeeper, Hara's, car, which is blocking access in what proves to be a symbolic display of her selfishness. As Shawn waits for his aunt, he notices her cat stalking something in the bushes – upon closer examination, Shawn thinks he sees a tiny girl among the stems, her arms full of leaves as big as she is. The focus then shifts to Arrietty's perspective as she threads her way through a garden turned jungle when we see through her eyes, carrying the leaves home to her mother Homily beneath the floorboards. Arrietty, we learn, is almost fourteen and very adventurous. She can't wait until her father Pod takes her borrowing for the first time and is clearly trying to balance her own wishes with her neurotic mother's constant worries. She's also afraid that her mother is right, and that the Clocks are the last of their species – after all, there used to be several other families living in Aunt Jessica's house, and all of them have disappeared. Her family remains and survives thanks to her father Pod's ingenious devices (we see him working on them later in the film in a workshop complete with a small smithy) and the many pathways between the walls that generations of Borrowers have created. Borrowing isn't easy or safe, as Arrietty learns very quickly when on her very first outing she makes eye contact with Shawn while she and Pod borrow a tissue from his bedroom. She's warned never to see him again, but Arrietty is lonely and a little rebellious and Shawn is sad and scared. The two form a brief but firm friendship that helps them to cope with the changes in their lives and that tugs at our heartstrings when they have to separate. In some ways this is a relationship that feels similar to that of Sen/Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away or Shizuku and Seiji in Whisper of the Heart – not quite full-blown romantic, but more than platonic. Its depth is what makes this movie a bit of a downer; even though the ending is hopeful, the fact that he's a human and she's a Borrower ultimately does get in the way, although they will forever be stronger for having known the other.
The English dub is excellent, with Carol Burnett's suspicious and unpleasant Hara stealing the show whenever she gets going. David Henrie's Shawn sounds a little too old for twelve in the timbre of his voice, which is a bit jarring at first, but Bridgit Mendler's Arrietty is spot-on the entire time, capturing the same capricious energy of a young teen girl that original voice actor Mirai Shida does. Amy Poehler's Homily gets the neurotic worry-wort to a T, and after hearing her version of the character, hers becomes the voice you hear when you (re)read Norton's book.
As always the animation is spectacular. Backgrounds are, as has been mentioned, a particular high point of this movie, with every scene making you wish you could just crawl into the television and live in the film's world. Every small detail has been considered, from how raindrops would appear much larger to Arrietty to how heavy a tissue would be for two tiny people. Nina, Aunt Jessica's cat, exhibits very classic feline behavior, all of her movements looking perfectly natural rather than a caricature of how people think cats act, and actually calling to mind some of the creatures from My Neighbor Totoro...as does Spiller, the feral Borrower, which is interesting. Spiller, as a point of interest, comes from the third novel in Norton's series, but his inclusion here feels nearly seamless, a testament to Miyazaki's adaptation.
The Secret World of Arrietty is slower and a bit sadder than some of Ghibli's other films, but it is also beautifully designed and animated and a better adaptation of Norton's book than many other attempts. Arrietty is a more mature looking heroine than some of her Ghibli brethren, but she feels very much like a fourteen-year-old girl in her movements and actions, and if Shawn is a little too mature at times, that is easily enough explained by his serious illness. Whether you're a fan of The Borrowers or not, this is a beautiful story about the affect we can have on others. It may not move quickly enough for everyone, but Arrietty is a heroine worth getting to know...and now you'll know why your paperclips and sugar cubes are always going missing.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Beautifully designed, Arrietty is a strong, likable heroine. Relationship between Arrietty and Shawn is sweet, Carol Burnett steals the show as Hara.
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