The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)
written by: Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (screenplay) & Mary Norton (book)
produced by: Toshio Suzuki
directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
runtime: 94 min.
U.S. release date: February 17, 2012
While the many animated films released each year are often quite entertaining, I found myself perking up when I see a new release coming from the wonderful artists at Studio Ghibli. Known for delivering beautiful films inhabited by surrealistic characters, gorgeous environments, and absorbing stories, like “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Spirited Away” and the recent “Ponyo”, the Japanese studio is highly regarding by many – especially other animators. So, it comes as no surprise that Walt Disney Pictures have been responsible for bringing these gems to the U.S. audience. Nothing has been sacrificed in the process though, the spirit and integrity of the studio remains intact, leaving the only Americanized aspect being the expected voice actors chosen to redub the original Japanese cast. Even if their latest release doesn’t rate with their best feature from Ghibli, the fact that it is still immensely enjoyable, speaks to the overall quality of their films.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic children’s fantasy novel The Borrowers, first published in 1952. The story introduced readers to the titular characters, tiny people who live off items people our size discard and borrow whatever they feel is necessary. There have been many stage and television adaptations over the years, as well as a 1997 live action film starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. It’s clear though that the material is best suited for animation, where the smallest of details can be appropriately accentuated and the dynamic (and essential) size comparison is unlimited.
The tiny people we discover living under the floorboards of a home just west of Tokyo are about 4 inches tall, are a content family of three. The only child to the calm Pod (Will Arnett) and the nervous, Homily (Amy Poehler) is the curious Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler, “Good Luck Charlie”), an adventure-seeking girl who is excited to experience her first borrowing excursion, as she accompanies her father into the house above. Navigating through enormous obstacles (things that seem small to us, like nails and doorknobs), their goal is to quietly journey into the house above and for some stealth shopping – a cube of sugar here or a sheet of tissue there (they call it “borrowing” but we never see them give anything back) – being mindful not to be seen by the human inhabitants and especially the pesky pet cat.
When the eager Arrietty is accidentally seen by Shawn (David Henrie, “Wizards of Waverly Place”), the sick young boy staying in the house with his erratic housekeeper, Haru (Carol Burnett), the huge world suddenly changes for the tiny family. Arrietty’s parents now feel their lives are in danger, because nothing good has ever come from a human seeing a Borrower. Although her father believes they should find a new home – Arrietty doesn’t see Shawn as a threat since she has cautiously accepted his friendship. While the boy does his best to help out the Borrowers, he inadvertently winds up earning the attention of Haru, who is eager to trap or exterminate the crafty little creatures.
While “Arrietty” may be lacking the surreal touch that other Studio Ghibli films are known for, the film is filled with a pure sense of open-eyed wonder that is infectious. The filmmakers here utilize the creativity of the material by focusing on the minute aspects in the world of these little characters. When Arrietty embarks on her adventure, she uses her gear – basically common human items they’ve found like fish hooks, ear rings, and rolls of tape – which will help her climb, elevate and lift herself to a variety of surfaces. Along the way, thy must dodge meddlesome crickets and avoid filthy rats, all with glowing eyes that accentuate the scale of the world the Borrowers live in. It’s a sublime exercise in world-building that thankfully wastes no time with origins or exposition.
The best voice acting work in an animated film is the kind that renders the acting talent behind the character we see on the screen unrecognizable. Sometimes, like in last year’s “Rango”, it’s not at all jarring to be thinking about the actor playing the character, since they seem so similar anyway. Mostly though, it can be a challenge to disassociate recognizable actors in animated films, (Liam Neeson’s work in “Ponyo” comes to mind) possibly producing a ripcord effect that can pull viewers (okay, adult viewers) out of the viewing experience.
Fortunately, in this film though, most of the actors are invisible and are able to fully flesh out the characters we see. The most familiar actors are ones who usually offer comedic work, like Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and veteran Carol Burnett. Poehler changes her voice and offers the right sense of paranoia and nervousness to Arrietty’s mother, while Arnett – an actor who can be just as out there – delivers his most subdued performance as the prepared and thoughtful father. It’s hard though to not place Burnett’s voice though (again, at least for the adults of a certain age watching), but since the character of Haru is such a loon, it’s actually quite a hoot to sit back and smile at what Burnett is doing. It’s a reminder that animation is a fantastic playground for actors up there in years, allowing them a creative outlet to display their still viable talents. The work of Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer in “Up!” are great examples of this. You may not see them together in a live-action film, but anything can happen in animation.
Bridgit Mendler is a wonderful choice for Arrietty, portraying her as a confident and respectful young girl who leads with both curiosity and caution. She has the right amount of joy and excitement in her voice that immediately connect us to the character. We rarely see a female protagonist in animated films and when we do they are usually overtly tomboyish or gratingly, all things princess. Not Arrietty, she’s a fine combination of both characterizations. She’s fond of decorating her room with giant flowers and grass, which she considers a garden but her mother sees as a jungle, but at the same time she is excited to use a sewing pin that she’s found as a sword on her adventures. Never whiny or complaining, Arrietty is a fine role model for girls – or any kid for that matter.
Mendler also performs a song called “Summertime” for the film, which goes well with the beautiful score composed by French singer and harpist, Cécile Corbel, a fan of Studio Ghibli films who submitted her music to the studio. Corbel’s music comes to life in this lush animated world, becoming a fitting asset, and her voice can be heard on the theme “Arrietty’s Song” that opens the movie.
Like many other Ghibli films, this film was already released in Japan, back in 2010 under the title “The Borrower Arrietty”, and is just now making its way to UK and US theaters. Co-written by Studio Ghibli godfather, Hayao Miyazaki with Keiko Niwa (who wrote “Tales from Earthsea” with Miyazaki’s son) and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a longtime animator for the studio who makes his directorial debut with “Arrietty”. They’ve taken a familiar story and breathed new life into it, bringing the typical attention to detail and character that we’ve come to know from Ghibli. It’s a wonderful break from the plethora of animated 3D and sequel offerings that saturate American theaters each year. Nothing against those, but a feature from Studio Ghibli is more concerned with crafting an immersive world that often takes its time with storytelling.
That should be refreshing for most viewers, but some younglings may be bored by the experience. Not because what they’re watching is boring, but because they’ve most likely been exposed to a kaleidoscope of action, comedy and in-your-face antics from previous animated films. “The Secret World of Arrietty” may not be an original work, but it’s treatment make up for it. I highly recommend a steady dose of Studio Ghibli films to remedy such a condition and a film like this (and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”) is a good place to start.