Review: “The Secret World of Arrietty”

Talking about Studio Ghibli films seems like a waste of my time, really. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s animation studio has become one of the stalwarts of cinema. With each film he puts out, it is received with the similar aplomb of what Walt Disney had in his day, what Pixar used to and maybe still has, of the kind of stature usually afforded auteurs like Martin Scorsese. And all this from a man who makes small, animated movies.

But, as anyone who has followed the history of Ghibli knows, they are on the hunt for new talent to fill the mighty shoes of the aging director. Some experiments are successful and some aren’t. But they keep trying, and the most recent project is one that comes from a script (and supposed planning oversight) by Miyazaki, helmed by animator and first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. So the big question is: how did the attempt work out? The answer, much to my relief, is a simple ‘beautifully.’

Arrietty adapts the story of Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers, which most people probably know due to a live action Western adaptation in 1997. It’s the story of a family of miniature people, called Borrowers, who live inside the walls and under the floor of a house, getting by trying not to be seen by the human ‘beans’ and taking little bits here and there to live off of. The story of the first book, and of this movie, concerns the adventures of a young girl borrower who is spotted by a sickly boy human who arrived to rest in the small remote house.

It’s a simple enough story, reduced in Arrietty to the very basics of plot. Arrietty is young and fairly bold, in sharp contrast to her fearful, often-hysteric mother and her resolute, taciturn father. She has never known other borrowers, the last of the other families that had lived in the house having left long ago. The movie opens as she turns 14, on her first ‘borrowing,’ where her and her father head out into the house to gather things they need.

It’s here that she’s spotted by Shawn, who has come to live with his aunt to rest before an operation to try to cure an otherwise vague heart condition. Shawn and Arrietty are naturally curious about one another, but the borrower law states that if they’re seen they must flee before the humans come and do them harm, and Shawn’s behavior arouses the suspicions of Hara, his aunt’s maid, who has long suspected that something is living in the house and taking things and will stop at nothing to prove it.

What makes this adaptation work particularly well is how forcefully slowed down the story feels to suit the talents of Ghibli. The story has its antagonists and turns of plot, but most of it is simply existing in this detailed world. What Arrietty excels in is the quiet sense of long summer days and the small wonder of gardens and household objects made strange and beautiful by the scale Arrietty lives her world at. Many of the meetings between Shawn and Arrietty are soft, few words spoken, most of their communication done wordlessly.

And really, that’s what Studio Ghibli films have always excelled in. Their animation has always stressed a natural, impressionistic touch to humanity. Characters rarely overact for no reason, and when they do it only serves to contrast the small touches that highlight the skill of animation they bring to all their work. I can’t think of many animated films of any genre that can convey so much in how characters move or emote on their faces or in their eyes, but it has always been the shining truth of Ghibli’s work that has made them the respected name they are today.

And in Arrietty the animation has obviously not slouched. Still mostly eschewing digital augmentation of their work, the movie is resplendent with painted backgrounds, meticulous detail made to rendering a world that is made up of tiny things used as household objects (tiny teakettles dispense tea a giant drop at a time, stamps are hung up as paintings) but confident enough to let many of the brush strokes remain, giving the whole movie the feel of a pastoral European painting. The animation itself remains strong and fluid, with special care made to let it sit comfortably in this landscape world. The blending is superb, and the movie is a work of art in every frame.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its more visceral delights. The scale of the world gives Arrietty’s explorations a firm sense of adventure, with bugs that are scaled to the size of pets and nearly as cute, and real pets that are made the vast, dangerous creatures of the more mythic Ghibli films. A firm sense of comedy crops up at times, as well, with one memorable sequence involving a crow that is straight-up Disney inspired and the scheming maid Hara provides an almost slapstick level of physical comedy simply in the way she moves and emotes. In one of the more inspired voicing choices, in the American dub she’s voiced by Carol Burnett, who manages to make her exasperatingly meddlesome without making her into a real villain.

In fact, the dub is one of the usual solid jobs Disney has done in translating Ghibli’s films for American audiences. There’s a bit of renaming of characters that makes sense given the ambiguous setting, the kind of Japanese bent to Europe that only exists in a form of fantasy anime. Unfortunately, the only misstep is kind of a big one. Shawn, voiced in the US by actor David Henrie, simply isn’t up to the task of emoting the complicated situation that character is in. He’s a young man obsessed with beauty but convinced he’s about to die, resigned to the fact and living each day in a poetic obsession with beauty and death that is distinctly Japanese and is difficult to translate, much less act. It’s not a terrible job, but I know that role would work better expressed in a language where that character is almost stock in a certain type of meditative fiction.

Arrietty isn’t a terribly ambitious movie, content to be muted and effective in the grace those smaller intentions carry. But it is beautiful in doing it, a confident film that settles into the rhythms of childhood and wonder that so few films outside of Ghibli’s canon can seem to muster. In many ways, with its coming of age tale and focus on small family interactions, I was reminded most of My Neighbor Totoro, with similar modest aspirations and magical results. If that comparison seems grandiose, that’s because time has rendered Totoro‘s charms legendary due to esteem. Hiromasa Yonebayashi isn’t there yet, to be sure, and he has the script and supervision of Miyazaki backing him, but I doubt this movie could be any better handled in the master’s hands, and it deserves its spot as a wonderful entry into the history of the greatest animation film studio on earth.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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