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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’

Extended Thoughts on ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’

The Secret World of Arrietty

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Starring Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett

I’ve become an old man in my young age. I imagine I’m not the only one, of course; you, dear reader, may feel like you’ve become twice as crotchety as your friends well before you reach the period of your life when shouting “Get off my lawn!” to neighborhood kids is appropriate and expected. As such, I get grouchy about frivolous things, such as cinema and its presentation. Yes, I know, I’m writing this article for a film website, and arguably, none of the other writers here and you consider cinema frivolous. In the grand scheme of things, of course, getting frustrated about how a movie is presented or created is but a drop in the ocean of problems in the world. But that doesn’t stop me from getting frustrated.

There are so many different aspects of the moviegoing experience I could rant about here—the price of tickets, the price of concessions, the way some people treat the movie theater like their living room—but I’d like to focus on something specific to animation in the 21st century: moving away from hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation. I am one of the biggest boosters for Pixar Animation Studios alive; I’m not a complete apologist, as I can’t defend the Cars movies outside of their photorealistic animation, but I love their other films. Computer animation can be as immersive and imaginative as hand-drawn animation, but because it’s new and flashy, movie studios gravitate toward it and ignore something that’s seen as old and obsolete. Hand-drawn animation is, of course, the opposite of old and obsolete. It’s just as vital today as it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Whatever guff I may give him for the two Cars movies, Pixar poobah John Lasseter has done a major favor to North American audiences by introducing them to the works of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s answer to Pixar or Walt Disney Feature Animation. Lasseter’s passion for these films, primarily directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is impressive enough that he’s basically the only reason why movies such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away get released in the United States at all. This alone is proof that we don’t need to go all-in on one type of animation format. Lasseter is, of course, the head of Pixar Animation Studios, the company that almost completely turned around how animation is perceived by modern audiences, at least in this country. Computer animation has become the forefront of animated filmmaking partly because of Lasseter. And yet, here he is, backing hand-drawn animation. We don’t need to love one or the other; we can love both.

Though it’s not as creatively ambitious as Spirited Away—one of the only other Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen, which means that this podcast will be an educational experience for me in watching the company’s history—there is plenty to love in The Secret World of Arrietty, the newest film from the Japanese studio. Based on the British novel The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, the film takes place outside of Tokyo at a secluded house in the forest. Living underneath the floorboards are a family of three borrowers: Pod, the taciturn father; Homily, the overprotective mother; and Arrietty, the headstrong and courageous girl who’s extremely curious about the enormous world surrounding her that seems so much more normal and ordinary to the human beings above them.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to ambition here is that story, which is simple and effective, but doesn’t provide a lot of challenges for the Ghibli animators. Their inventive spirit is on display here in the exquisite and beautiful hand-drawn animation, but not in any unique twists and turns of the story. There are few, if any, surprises here; that’s not automatically a bad thing, but I imagine many Ghibli acolytes will be slightly let down by Arrietty, if only because it’s not as complex a story as past films. As I said, though, the film’s greatest strength is its look and visuals. Even though I’m not the number-one Studio Ghibli fan—flame me in the comments if you like—I can’t ignore how great Spirited Away and Ponyo look. The stories have left me somewhat cold in the past, but the ambition and talent is infectious. Also, to clarify: I’m not against complex stories. That I found myself more attuned to The Secret World of Arrietty as a story doesn’t make me a simpleton. I’ve just never embraced the characters in previous Ghibli films as I did here.

The other major roadblock I have had with the three Ghibli films I’ve seen—one that I can avoid, I think, on DVD and Blu-ray, but not in theaters—is the American dubbing of Japanese voices. Here, with fewer characters, it’s not as distracting, but there is a somewhat far-off, distant quality to hearing famous folks reading lines that could easily be subtitles for Japanese dialogue. The other issue specific to The Secret World of Arrietty, and one that I will gladly classify as a “Me Problem,” something that I need to deal with, not necessarily a problem with the film, is who American dub director Gary Rydstrom cast as Pod and Homily. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, of Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, are among the best comic actors of their generation. They’ve created iconic TV characters, and also have great voices for animation. Arnett, however, is given a relatively dull character to play with. Frankly, neither actor gets a lot of personality to work with, but at least Poehler can play off the feverish mania that she uses to such hilarious effect as Leslie Knope on one of NBC’s best contemporary comedies. Arnett isn’t so lucky.

Pod is especially one-dimensional; while he cares for his wife and daughter, and sees himself in Arrietty, he never raises his voice or shows an ounce of personality. Arnett’s got an excellent deep voice for animation—used quite well in 2007’s Ratatouille, where he’s cast so well that you may not even realize he plays the German employee in Gusteau’s kitchen—but outside of his movie-trailer-guy baritone, there’s not much to work with here. Poehler’s not very well-suited for her role, but again, that mania she taps into to play Homily is something anyone who loves her performance on Parks and Recreation—and of course you do, because otherwise that would mean you don’t watch Parks and Recreation, which is insane—is something out of which she gets comic mileage. Arnett is stuck in traction with Pod, though.

Voice dubs, in general, are a bit off-putting because of that distant quality. This is not the way the movie was intended to be seen by Hayao Miyazaki and company. Now, I imagine that Miyazaki and the studio are fine with the dub because, hey, at least we’re seeing their movie, right? I understand that way of thinking, but I do wish that Walt Disney Pictures wouldn’t assume that children would have no patience for subtitles. Of course, you could argue—and quite well, I might add—that the reason why children are averse to subtitles is because their parents are averse to it or don’t introduce kids to the idea that not every movie is available in the English language. The idea that kids aren’t that intelligent is one that many parents and movie studios are susceptible to. Studio Ghibli—and Pixar Animation Studios—doesn’t fall for it, so I wish that the American versions of their films wouldn’t do the same.

That aside, I enjoyed The Secret World of Arrietty, not just because it was presented in glorious (and I do mean that) 2D with hand-drawn animation, but because the story and characters were engaging. What’s more, the opening setpiece, where Pod and Arrietty go on a borrowing, is so assured and confident that it’s OK for the film to not have the same ambitions that movies such as Spirited Away have from the first frame.  What this movie lacks in creative ambition, it makes up for in solid, pleasing family entertainment. Though the movie isn’t just for kids, it’s something out of which adults can get plenty of pleasure.