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Review: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’

Another Studio Ghibli Winner

Credit: Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney

Above: "The Secret World of Arrietty"

If the Studio Ghibli production "The Secret World of Arrietty" (opened February 17 in select theaters) had come out last year it would have cleaned up on awards because it is leaps and bounds better than anything Hollywood produced last year.

Studio Ghibli is the Japanese animation and film studio founded in 1985, by animator/filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki along with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. The studio was founded just after the success of Miyazaki's 1984 "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind." The company takes its name from the Arabic word the Italians used to name their Saharan scout planes in World War II. The studio has famously produced Miyazaki's great animations "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "Howl's Moving Castle," and "Ponyo" as well as the rare film by someone else.

Miyazaki, who is now 71, has threatened to retire ever since "Princess Mononoke" in 1997, and he has definitely been slowing down. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is further proof that he is looking for fresh talent to mentor in order to secure the future for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki wrote the screenplay and his influence is readily apparent in the feisty female heroine, the character design, and the use of literary source material. But for this project, Miyazaki has handed over reins over to first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Trailer: "The Secret World of Arrietty"

Trailer: "The Secret World of Arrietty"

The story involves a family of little people living under the floorboards of a house. The basic story is taken from Mary Norton's 1952 children's novel "The Borrowers." The novel has already inspired an American TV and theatrical film as well as a British TV show and feature film. This latest incarnation of Norton's popular children's fantasy is transplanted to Japan where we find little (about 6 inch) Arrietty living with her father Pod and her mother Homily under the floorboards of an old country house. The teenage Arrietty is eager to explore and doesn't like her parents' warnings to avoid the humans. They survive by going out each night and "borrowing" just what they need to live on from the big, wasteful humans. One night, while out on a mission, Arrietty is spotted by Shawn, a young human boy living with his aunt as he awaits heart surgery. Shawn and Arrietty are mutually intrigued and develop a friendship despite the dire warnings of Arrietty's parents. Despite the best intentions of the youngsters, the little borrowers do find their quiet life thrown into massive upheaval.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney

"The Secret World of Arrietty"

Arrietty is clearly a kindred spirit to the heroines of Miyazaki's earlier "Nausicaä," "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Princess Mononoke," and "Spirited Away." She is smart, self-sufficient, and rebellious without being disrespectful. In an odd way, Arrietty and her family also carry on the environmental messages of Miyazaki's earlier films. They take only what they need, not wanting to upset the balance. They are also, like the raccoons of "Pom Poko," in danger of extinction because humans pose a threat of destroying their environment. But unlike Disney (which ironically is the U.S. distributor of all of Studio Ghibli's films) the messages are gracefully rather than heavy-handedly delivered.

"Arrietty" is a refreshing work for anyone who has grown tried of the frenzied pace of American animation, which seems almost exclusively aimed at kids. Oh sure some film include some humor that entertains adults more than kids (as in "Shrek" or "Tangled") but almost all of the Hollywood produced animation is aimed squarely at a young audience. "Arrietty" is refreshing because it first and foremost tells a story, and it takes its time to develop that story. It doesn't rush the pace because it thinks kids will be bored or dumb down the ideas because they worry kids won't appreciate subtlety. It also provides lovely hand drawn (with some computer help and support) animation that allows us to literally stop and smell the flowers as it weaves a tale of miniature adventure. And guess what? The audience full of little kids and adults were held rapt. The kids in my row never fidgeted and didn't even get up for a potty break or food. So maybe Hollywood animated films are just underestimating their audience.

One of the reasons the kids were entranced was because the film gives us wonderful details. There may not be a frenzy of action and fast cuts but each scene has meticulous details about how the borrowers live, how they make use of the things in their environment to survive. These are fascinating details and exquisitely rendered in the beautiful animation. So we see how a pin can become a sword for Arrietty or how double-sided sticky tape can allow Pod to walk up walls. Their environment is carefully designed so we see how nails sticking out of the wall can provide a ledge to walk on or how bugs can be a real danger to someone a half a foot high.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney

"The Secret World of Arrietty"

If there is one complaint I might have is that "Arrietty" looks too much like a Miyazaki film. Yonebayashi doesn't distinguish himself from his mentor. If I didn't know that Yonebayashi had directed this I might have mistaken it for Miyazaki's work, especially in terms of how the characters and film looks. It would be nice for Studio Ghibli to find some fresh new talent that will take the studio into the future and with a fresh sense of style. I don't think Miyazaki wants mere imitators but animators who will do what the company's name was meant to imply, "blow a new wind through the Japanese anime industry."

"The Secret World of Arrietty" (rated G and dubbed into English from Japanese) is a thoroughly delightful film that just happens to be animated. That's a distinction that is good to make because part of what makes Japanese anime so good is that the filmmakers and animators in Japan don't see animation as a genre aimed at kids, it is merely an artistic choice -- like black and white over color photography -- exercised to tell a particular story.

Companion viewing: "Spirited Away," "Pom Poko," "Nausicaa"

[Note: The American dub cast has Bridgit Mendler, Will Arnett, and Amy Poehler, all actors from television. The British version has Saoirse Ronan from "Atonement," Mark Strong, and Olivia Colman, which sounds like a better cast, one that would be trying less to get a laugh and more to capture the character. I'd be curious to hear the British version.]

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