2012 (in the US; 2010 in Japan). 94 minutes. Rated G
“Why is my first thought always that he got eaten by the cat? What’s wrong with me?”
Mary Norton’s classic book, The Borrowers, comes to animated life under Studio Ghibli’s direction. I am a huge Studio Ghibli fan and if you are interested in classic animation (not computer animation) and unusual stories, you will be well served by checking out the films in Studio Ghibli’s stable. The films are always dubbed with big name American actors voicing the characters. My favorites include Spirited Away (an Academy Award winner), My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, The Cat Returns…and oh, I could just list the whole catalog. Hayao Miyazaki is a genius; I’m just saying.’ Studio Ghibli also created another book-to-film: Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones, a book I love. The movie version was less satisfying, but if you watch it without focusing on what’s different from the book, it makes for a good flick.
The Secret World of Arrietty borrows (intentional pun) the main plot points from the 1952 novel, but varies widely in its details. Arrietty is a “Borrower,” a race of miniature people who live off of their larger human “bean” hosts. They “borrow” objects that the beans won’t notice go missing, like a cube of sugar here or a tissue there. Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is turning 14 and is eager to learn how to become a true Borrower by going into the house they live under. She’s been practicing by going on expeditions outside and is seen briefly by Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), a human bean. Shawn is a teenage boy visiting the house of his aunt for a few weeks before he has a heart surgery. Shawn has heard of the “little people” who live under the floors from his mother, and is eager to make friends with Arrietty. Obviously, there are many problems that will be faced by both Shawn and Arrietty before a friendship can happen.
The animation is lush and colorful. It is dazzling to see the attention paid to the world made to size relative to both Borrowers and human beans. When Arrietty and Pod (Will Arnett) go on their adventure into the house to go borrowing, the cleverness behind how they travel is mesmerizing. Nails become stairs, leaves become camouflage, double-sided tape becomes a way to climb up a table. Arrietty’s wonder becomes ours at each new thing she sees, especially when she discovers the detailed dollhouse in Shawn’s room. The quieter moments in the movie are full of emotion, from Arrietty’s yearning to have a friend (there are no other Borrowers around) to her full on despair at making mistakes to Pod’s near silent, stoic presence that soothes his anxious wife Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler). Shawn’s resignation that he may die in surgery becomes a zest for life when he finds he can help the Borrowers.
Sadly, some of the wonder of the film is taken away by gaps in the plot. Shawn easily deduces where not only the basement window Arrietty comes through is, but finds their house, which is under the floorboards, in a closet, with boxes on top of it. In one dramatic scene, Hara (Carol Burnett), the housekeeper, manages to also find the house. My 8 year old and I both wondered where the father was in the scene. It also feels as if there is a backstory to Hara we know nothing about.
Gaps in the plot aside, the movie, as a whole works, even if it is a bit creaky in spots. Hara provides a great deal of comic relief that had the entire theater of children in giggles. Most of the movie had myself and my daughter enraptured. You definitely become attached to the characters and root for Shawn and Arrietty to become friends. Emotionally, the film hits the right notes.
I can’t say this is Studio Ghibli’s best effort, but I enjoyed it all the same. One of the things that Studio Ghibli does so well is to introduce strong, complex characters who embark on magical adventures, with nary a prince or princess in sight. Instead, you feel as if you strayed into someone else’s very imaginative dream. If you are looking for a movie to see with your kids that is interesting for both you and them, doesn’t reduce itself to low humor, has memorable characters, and is gorgeous to look at, go see The Secret World of Arrietty. You won’t regret it. Or pick up any of Studio Ghibli’s other films for a real treat.