The Secret World Of Arrietty
In a film industry where computer animation is the new norm, we’re lucky to have a man like Hayao Miyazaki to remind us what makes traditionally animated films so magical. Miyazaki, the legendary auteur behind Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is known for his lushly illustrated worlds and his knack for infusing Japanese lore and mythos with his own wildly creative imagination. Movies like Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle have redefined the genre of Japanimation and have challenged the assumption that animated features are just for children.
However, whereas Miyazaki’s films are consistent blockbusters overseas, they have maintained something of a cult status here in the States. In 2001 Studio Ghibli finally made a significant splash in the American market with Spirited Away, which was the first foreign film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Picture. Now with The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney, the distributor for Studio Ghibli in the United States, hopes to continue to bring Miyazaki’s films to a broader audience.
Adapted from Mary Norton’s 1952 novel, The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty tells the story the titular 14-year-old and her parents. They are the last of The Borrowers, a race of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards and inside the walls of full sized people’s homes, whom the Borrowers call, “Human Beans.” The Borrowers eek out a living by, well, borrowing (honestly, more like stealing) small items from their larger counterparts, items that could be easily missed such as a cube of sugar, a square of tissue paper, or a loose pin. On her first nightly expedition into the human household with her father, Arrietty is seen by Shawn, a young boy with a weak heart. Even though her parents warn her about humans and their dangerous curiosities, Arrietty can’t help but be intrigued by Shawn, who in turn is interested in her, and a unique friendship is formed.
Although The Secret World of Arrietty wasn’t directed by Miyazaki (that distinction goes to Hiromasa Yonebayashi), he still co-wrote and produced the film. So Arrietty still has a lot of the charm that makes the animator’s movies such endearing experiences. Beautiful landscapes that would look comfortable on canvas and articulate, hand drawn animation make the movie a truly stunning piece of art. Although most of Miyazaki’s films contain magical or fantastical elements such as witches, forest gods, walking castles and cat buses, the magic in Arrietty comes from its domestic setting and the ingenious reimagining of commonplace items. Pins become swords, postage stamps are wall pictures, and pill bugs are pets. When Arrietty’s mother pours tea, it comes out in droplets. Much of the joy in The Secret World of Arriety comes from seeing our world in scale.
However, unlike most Studio Ghibli movies which have a sprawling narrative and leave the viewer feeling fully satisfied, The Secret World of Arrietty moves along at a quiet, unassuming, and, at times downright boring pace. Ghibli’s previous release, Ponyo, felt a bit the same, off-the-cuff, but Arrietty lacked even some of the breathtaking action scenes that Ponyo had. Most of the incredible scenes and sequences in Arriety were arresting in an easy country-living way: the hazy romantic shots of Shawn reclining by the river or the expansive kitchen seen as something like a natural wonder from the Borrowers’ point of view. But unfortunately, this animation prowess doesn’t distract from the fact that you’ll be checking your watch often, maybe even yawning, and the ending, while logical and expected, feels understated.
But none of this should dissuade you from seeing The Secret World of Arrietty. It is a Studio Ghibli film and that alone is reason for a trip to the theater. Whether or not a film like this can reclaim the popularity of traditional hand drawn animation seems a moot point since Miyazaki appears to be interesting in preserving a craft and maintaining a high level of artistic excellence. He and Studio Ghibli are doing their own thing, and that is the admirable mark of a master. There’s no doubt about it that there isn’t a niche audience that wouldn’t benefit from being introduced to Miyazaki and The Secret World of Arrietty makes for a great first for anyone who hasn’t seen his films. It’s accessible, and a stunning example of craftsmanship that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.