Get ready for a treat, kids and adults alike.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a delightfully sweet oasis in the otherwise chaotic and questionable abyss of recent children’s animated movies. Based of Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s novel The Borrowers, Studio Ghibli (Ponyo, Spirited Away) once again creates a stunning success. Though released in Japan in 2010, the film only made its North American debut via Disney this February, and good gravy have we been missing out on the goods. The Secret World of Arrietty is both gentle and rich with emotional sentiment; the animation is Studio Ghilbi at its absolute finest and the film’s message of finding friendship and belonging in the most unlikely of places is both heartwarming and universal. The movie is worth your dollars, boys and girls.
Our title character and heroine Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a Borrower, a tiny little being that lives within the walls of a forest cottage with her parents Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler). Fourteen-year-old Arrietty and her family live reclusively, save for the occasional covert ventures, or “borrowings”, beyond the walls to collect household supplies, such as sugar cubes and tissue, from their human hosts. We meet Arrietty as she is on the cusp of learning the tricks of borrowing and being given more freedom to leave the safety of her home; but also, we meet her as she develops into a young adult who is growing starved for non-parental companionship.
Enter Shawn (David Henrie), a young human boy who comes to stay in the home under mysterious circumstances. As Shawn wanders aimlessly around his new abode he accidentally discovers his mysterious housemate, and, very quickly, a secret – and prohibited – friendship blossoms. If discovered by either humans or Borrowers alike, their relationship has the potential to put Arrietty’s family into perilous danger.
So much about this movie is delightful. I think the thing that I like most about Studio Ghibli productions is that they tend to be much slower paced than their contemporary, or even classic, counterparts both in storylines and animation. Studio Ghibli does not try to get all up in your face with the action, comedy and excitement (though none of these are bad things). Instead, writer Hayao Miyazaki and his team take a more realistic, soft and gentle approach to the fantastical ideas that he creates. He turns these animated stories into beautiful ballads that anyone can relate to.
Though Miyazaki didn’t direct Arrietty – he passed the torch to his protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi who has been working with him since Princess Mononoke – it’s impossible not to see his imprint on the film. The style and the themes remain familiar in Arrietty, such as a strong female protagonist; the inclination to presenting a more natural, pacifistic world and unforgettably, the elegant hand-drawn animation where we manage to see the illusion of depth and reality without the use of popular studio tricks like 3D. I suppose the only thing missing from Arrietty, which works to set it apart from its predecessors, is the element of magic. Other than the sheer existence of the Borrowers, Arrietty presents a very natural world with very human actions, reactions and consequences.
The source of comedy in the film derives from the film’s villain, Hara (Carol Burnett), a meddlesome – not to mention a little bit insane – old housemaid who is charged with taking care of Shawn. After years of living in the cottage and hearing rumors of the “little people” that inhabit the walls, her most desperate of wishes is to find them and ultimately destroy them. Why she hates them so much is a mystery though her motives are not necessary to the advancement of the plot. Hara’s just crazy, okay? She’s the kind of impotent villain that both enrages the viewer for her ignorance, but is also hilarious in the way she is constantly failing to deliver the evil she intends – think Wile E. Coyote. There is just a lot of good fun writing going on here.
Overall, The Secret World of Arrietty is a beautiful film with beautiful messages. The two young characters, which both possess uncertain futures, each learn that hope can be derived from trusting in the good will of others. Youngen’s and adults alike will be captivated by the water-colored hand-drawn animation, both a toss back to the classics as well as an artistic movement of its own. This movie reminds us that animated movies don’t have to be in 3D, they don’t have to be “intense” both with action or slapstick, nor does the movie have to drill morals derived through consequence. The Secret World of Arrietty delivers us its messages gently, naturally and without a whole lot of conflict. It’s a beautiful film and I guarantee that for days after you’ll be wishin’ that you could parkour through a kitchen as effectively as these little dudes can.