The Secret World of Arriety
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Japan. 2012. Ages 7+. 94 minutes. Disney. 35mm.
Sat., March 23, 2013
“The wee folk beneath the floorboards in the wistful animated childrens film The Secret World of Arrietty dont get underfoot: they scramble and hide, if less like scattering mice and more like practiced explorers. There arent many of them. For all that Arrietty Clock (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) knows, her family may be the last of its kind, a lost little world in a land of giants. Even so, while shes 14 going on 15, and three or so inches going on four, Arrietty seems bigger because her courage, along with her fluid form and softly dappled world, come by way of the famed Japanese company Studio Ghibli, where little girls rule, if not necessarily as princesses.
That kind of screen equality is rare in American animation (this year Pixar releases its first movie with a female lead), but its never been an issue at Ghibli, where girls have long reigned, without the usual frou-frou, in films like Spirited Away and Ponyo. In keeping with that tradition, a tiara and pink tulle dont make Arrietty special: her size and especially her bravery do, as evident when, early on, she sprints across a yard with a few leaves and a sprig of flowers while being chased by a cat that looks like a furry blowfish. The cat belongs to the storybook cottage where her family lives and where a sick human boy, Shawn (David Henrie), has just moved in.
The Secret World of Arrietty, as fans of The Borrowers will have sussed out, is based on the first of five books Mary Norton wrote about tiny people who primarily live off what they appropriate from human beings (or beans, as they call them). An ungenerous soul might brand the Borrowers thieves; the French filmmaker Agnès Varda would describe them as gleaners, those who live lightly on the land, taking what others dont need, wont miss and discard.
(The Secret World was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and planned and written by Hayao Miyazaki, the great Ghibli auteur and director of Spirited Away; the voices for the American version were directed and seamlessly dubbed by Gary Rydstrom from an English-language script by Karey Kirkpatrick.)
Part of the charm of the Borrowers books, a quality shared by the movie, is the theme of the tiny making wonderfully do in a world inhabited by, and made for, the big (like parents). The Clocks live under the floors of the human cottage, yet the home theyve cobbled together from borrowed bits and purloined pieces is as cozy as the one upstairs.
A Ghibli animator turned director, Mr. Yonebayashi fills in this hidden realm with fanciful dollhouse detail, both in the Clock quarters where a clay flower pot serves as the hearth, and postage stamps hang like paintings and in the shadowy interiors where Arrietty, nimbly scaling steps made of nails, first learns the art of the steal from her father, Pod (Will Arnett).
The world outside, unsurprisingly for Ghibli, is lush and inviting, by turns a dense jungle and an impressionistic landscape washed in gradations of green and flecked with red, yellow and purple. Ghibli still uses hand drawings, along with computer-generated imagery, though it shuns 3-D animation, the near-ubiquitous process in which models of characters are scanned three-dimensionally or created directly in a computer. What the studio does, brilliantly, is preserve a hand-drawn look and feel in its work, as in the exteriors in The Secret World, where the characters pop against a painterly meadow. Computers create extraordinarily photorealistic visuals, but here the human touch deepens the storys themes of loneliness, friendship, the need for home and for being, literally, held.
Even so, the story doesnt have the richness of the visuals or the complexities of the book, which has been read as being about the struggles faced by Britons after World War II. Theres also a smidgen too much shrill comedy with Hara, a busybody housekeeper (Carol Burnett), and with Arriettys nervous mother, Homily (Amy Poehler).
And its initially a letdown that Arrietty and Shawn arent just friends, as in the book, but also something like impossible romantic foils. Yet this disappointment proves mostly premature because Studio Ghibli and Arrietty have a way of taking you where you may not expect, whether youre scrambling through rooms as large as canyons or clambering into the safety of an outstretched hand, a simple gesture that says it all.” (Manohla Dargis, The NY Times)