The Secret World of Arrietty
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett
How long is The Secret World of Arrietty? 94 minutes.
What is The Secret World of Arrietty rated? G (a few discussions of dying and mortality).
In Ghibli’s latest, a different perspective
helps assuage the February doldrums.
Studio Ghibli, the company responsible for such well-loved animated pictures as Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, has done it again. It’s just sort of a different “it.” Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book The Borrowers. The combination of a British children’s story and Japanese setting make the movie a very odd combination of cultural artifacts and wrinkles in time. Kids’ stories about bravery, about overcoming one’s biggest fear, are a dime a dozen – but subdued, sweetly evocative ones are about as rare as good action flicks.
Many of us read The Borrowers as kids – but if not, you’ve probably seen any number of the film adaptations (which, one assumes, is why the studio didn’t call this one The Borrowers: Let’s Try This Once More). It’s about the Clocks, a family of tiny people who live in the walls of a Big People home. Father Pod (voiced in the American version by Will Arnett), mother Homily (Amy Poehler), and spirited teenage daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) leave the confines of their home only to “borrow” small things the “human beans” won’t miss: sugar cubes, buttons, cookies. When human bean Aunt Jessica brings home her sickly nephew Shawn (David Henrie), the Clocks’ world explodes. During her first Borrowing, Arrietty is spotted by Shawn. What ensues, as you’d assume, is a gentle friendship punctuated by danger in the form of bitter housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett).
Arrietty doesn’t bother with 3D, and as a result it feels elderly, a bit nostalgic – and I mean that in the best way possible. In tone, it’s like a sunnier version of Don Bluth’s 1980s animated masterpieces (particularly The Secret of NIMH). Its animation, particularly scenes in the garden outside Aunt Jessica’s house, is absolutely gorgeous: peonies and wildflowers leap from the screen in vibrant watercolor, a decrepit bridge arcs over a tiny stream, and a fat, grouchy kitty stalks among the wildlife. It makes you want to be there.
The interiors of the walls, where the Clocks fend off cockroaches and crickets for food, are rendered with lush detail; a ladder of staples and a bridge of nails become perfectly sized for climbing. When the tiny Arrietty first peeks into the vastness of the human beans’ kitchen, the wind whooshes through her ears: it’s an immense place, as massive as the Grand Canyon to her. As human beans ourselves, we in the audience get to experience our world from a different perspective. When Arrietty finds a discarded needle, she picks it up and it makes a chunk! noise, as though she were removing the venerable sword from the stone; when she sheathes it in her dress, it makes the familiar metallic scrape we associate with blades. The cat, Nina, is a monster (much like Dragon in Bluth’s NIMH) the likes of which humans will never have to encounter (we hope, anyway). Of course, Nina eventually decides the Borrowers are not worth eating and helps to bring Arrietty and Shawn together for a final goodbye (someone at Ghibli loves cats).
Hiyao Miyazaki, one of the most renowned Japanese directors of our time, contributed to Arrietty only with “planning and screenplay,” leaving the director’s chair to Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi’s film comes with less “comic madcappery” than other Ghibli films, to quote a friend. Hara is a bit of a nutbar, and Homily is a screaming worrywart, but the movie offers few big laughs and fewer totally bizarre moments. It seems like Yonebayashi strove to make a film that would appeal to a worldwide audience and sacrificed some of the wackiness in the process.
The setting and plot of the movie are timely and timeless, oddly non-specific. Although the garden and the cars in the film are undoubtedly Japanese, the cottage in which Shawn and the Clocks live is peculiarly Victorian in style. Artful crown molding, dark hardwood floors, grandfather clocks, and lush carpets fill the home, though its inhabitants wear Japanese sandals. A gorgeously outfitted dollhouse, replete with miniature Victorian décor, is a dream home for the Borrowers. Further, a visitor whips out a smartphone to look up a pest control company, but Hara uses a rotary phone to call them. We are here in 2012, the movie seems to say, but this place is floating in the past, bobbing between cultures. It’s lovely to watch.
Arrietty doesn’t tug the heartstrings quite like many Disney pictures do – there is danger and intrigue, but the film’s major focus is friendship and love. Shawn’s ailing heart and divorcing parents force him into a life of leisurely misery, while Arrietty’s family’s paranoia keeps her from adventure. When the two discover each other, they bring one another hope and relief. There’s another message here: have faith, and don’t meddle for personal gain. Hara, Jessica, and Shawn each have very different responses to the existence of tiny people, and the movie asks us to contemplate which one we would have: greedy excitement? Smiling acceptance despite lack of concrete evidence? Curiosity and a quiet desire to help?
Arrietty enjoyed a nationwide release due to Disney’s help, but it probably won’t break the box office. It’s smart, quietly poetic, and gently funny. One wonders if it’ll find its audience: kids are likely to find it unexciting, and adults (except the nerdy ones who’ll see any Ghibli movie) are likely to expect something it isn’t. In any case, it’s a lovingly animated movie that transposes your perspective, makes you think about believing in magic. It’s a cure for the February blues.