CAPSULE: By being less bizarre than SPIRITED AWAY and having more of a human center to the film, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY is one of Studio Ghibli's best efforts to date. Adapting Mary Norton's frequently filmed novel THE BORROWERS, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi gives us a world in which tiny people live in the walls of houses, borrowing food and tools and hiding from the big people. The story deals with trust and loneliness as two people from very different backgrounds and worlds learn to be friends and help each other. The story seems deceptively simple, but there is a lot for the viewer to think about. This is a very good film for adults and for children. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the US version and Saoirse Ronan in the UK version) lives with her two parents in a large country house. They do not own the home, but the people who do own it do not know of their existence. Arrietty's family lives by stealing--oops, make that "borrowing"--food and supplies from the people who live in the house. And what is stolen is very rarely missed because their borrowings are small. It helps that they are each are about four inches high. The little people live in the walls of the house like mice, making their domain in dark corners, in the inside of walls, and in the empty spaces under floorboards. And in the house the only big people are an older woman and her housekeeper. The little people go on big adventures getting the little bits of food they need to sustain their lives. Things take a turn when the owner's grandnephew Shawn comes to stay with his great aunt. Almost immediately his sharp young eyes pick up the movement in the bushes around the house and soon he becomes very aware Arrietty's presence. To the little borrowers this is a disaster. As soon as humans have discovered the existence of little people in the past they have come into conflict and the Borrowers usually do not survive. Borrowers hate and distrust the full-sized people, whom they call "Beans" from "human beings". Arrietty's parents, Pod (Will Arnett/Mark Strong) and Homily (Amy Poehler/Olivia Colman), do not want Arrietty ever to come near to Shawn for fear of discovery. But Shawn is lonely and really needs a friend and Arrietty thinks she can befriend and trust this big person. The ending of the film pretty much has to be the way it is, but it is uncharacteristically melancholic for a family film.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY is the most recent American release from Studio Ghibli (pronounced "ji-bu-ri," incidentally; it is the Italian name for a hot wind from the desert). The best-known name associated with Studio Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, director of NAUSICAA, LAPUTA, TOTORO, KIKI, PORCO, ON YOUR MARK, MONONOKE HIME, SEN TO CHIHIRO NO KAMIKAKUSHI (a.k.a. SPIRITED AWAY), and HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. (Your titles may vary.) This film was directed by first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The screenplay was written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa based on the oft-filmed novel THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton. In fact, I think that this is one of Ghibli's best efforts, in large part because the characters are more likable and better developed. The theme is of two lonely people who should distrust each other, but who want to let their friendship overcome their differences. That is a fairly powerful theme and is probably better than Studio Ghibli's best previous effort SPIRITED AWAY, whose message was just one of self-reliance. That theme is certainly part of THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, but there is much more to this story. The visual imagery is less bizarre than that of SPIRITED AWAY, but the story is better founded in more believable characters and more human drama. And this script is actually far better than Miyazaki's most recent, PONYO.
As I said, the visual imagery is not as fantastical as was that of SPIRITED AWAY. A somewhat more realistic style was used (if showing the world of tiny people living in walls can be called "realistic"). The filmmakers have created some clever machinery used by the borrowers to move around the house to find food. I am skeptical that the borrowers could have built the comfortable world they have with the tools they had. But we viewers happily suspend our disbelief.
Some of what we see seems to be inspired by images from THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. The drawing style seems different and a bit more defined when showing interiors from a dollhouse that becomes important in the plot. The filmmakers have partially looked at the physics of being tiny and living in a tiny world. When pouring tea, it forms into large globules held together by surface tension before falling. On the other hand humans and borrowers talk to each other in normal sounding voices, something that would not be possible with very tiny larynxes. Climbing ropes for borrowers should be much easier than it appears due to the square-cube law. Also there are inaccuracies due to the dubbing. The story clearly takes place in Japan, but they have 1-800 numbers on the telephone.
I assume that the three major characters were voiced by familiar actors, but I recognized the name of only Carol Burnett. I do not know if I have ever seen Will Arnett act, though he has done voices in several animated films.
I just recently saw DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, another film with a house with tiny people. But that film is made from the point of view of big people. Rarely have we see this sort of story done in which we really can see such a world from the tiny people's point of view. The notable examples are THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and now this film, but it is a perspective that allows us to see our world in a new way. I rate THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1568921/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_secret_world_of_arrietty/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper