Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Gary Rydstrom for the U.S. version)
Wirriten by Hayao Miyazaki
North American cinema goers who enjoy solid animation feature films are privileged with a number of eclectic films produced by numerous studios. One can go see the latest animated picture from Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks. Even 20th Century Fox occasionally gets in on the action and last year Nikelodeon gave arguably the best English language animated film of the year, Rango. Under the circumstances dictated by a tough, competitive market, the Japanese studio Ghibli frequently gets lost in the shuffle on these shores even though, if one pays attention to new releases, there typically is a film or two of theirs which reaches US and Canadian theatres almost every year. It’s latest, The Secret World of Arrietty, comes from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Hayao Miyazaki, the latter who has directed many of Ghibli’s most famous films, but in this instance acts as screenwriter. It is based on the novel from Mary Norton.
Arrietty takes viewers to the world of the ‘borrowers’, tiny individuals, no larger than mice, resembling humans but only rarely seen by them, who live in the walls and under the floors of homes. Their name comes from the fact that at night, these brave little souls venture throughout the homes they dwell in to snatch whatever common goods they require to continue their simple existence, be it food or sanitary products, such as paper tissue, all materials humans supposedly would not miss since such small quantities, relatively speaking, are taken. The story centres around one family of borrowers in particular, that of father Pod (voiced by Will Arnett in North American version), mother Homily (Amy Peohler) and their 14 year old daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), the main protagonist. Early in the film it is revealed that Arrietty is about to embark on her very first borrowing expedition under her father’s guidance. Excitement turns to horror when misfortune has it that Arrietty is spotted by one of the home’s human inhabitants, a young teenage boy named Shawn (David Henrie), sick in bed with a heart issue. Thus begins a touching adventure of discovery between one world who always tried to hide itself from the second, while the latter only knew the first existed through silly stories and rumours.
‘The animators clearly hold the old (animation) technique dear to their hearts, giving it their all to make each character distinct…
Studio Ghibli bring a tried, tested and true animation style to Arrietty, abiding by the old saying that if something is not broken, then there is no point in trying to fix it. Those familiar with Ghibli’s output, which includes such popular animated films as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (both directed by Miyazaki) should feel immediately comfortable with the presentation of this latest endeavour. There are a few fleeting moments when the animations hints at some enhancement with the juxtaposition of foreground and background objects creating a three dimensional sense of depth, but they come only so rarely and are quite subtle. By and large, this is a traditionally animated movie in which the details of principle characters as well as of their surroundings are lovingly realized. With so many computer generated animation films released on a yearly basis, experiencing a new but traditionally animated picture can be taken as something of a pleasant break. The animators clearly hold the old technique dear to their hearts, giving it their all in making each character distinct. An aspect that impresses in particular which also helps create the film’s sense of adventure is the appreciation for the scale of the world Arietty and her family must navigate through. Some of the better scenes of the film simply involve Arrietty’s excursions throughout the house, either alone or coupled with her father. The filmmakers never rush the process of voyaging from point A to point B, allowing the audience to fully take in just how much strategy, gadgetry and energy is required for these tiny folk to orient themselves.
‘Their friendship adds some much welcomed sweetness to their respective narrative and emotional journeys…
Regardless of whatever thrills director Yonebayashi may try to realize, their strength can only exist if the characters are interesting enough to carry the drama. True to the Ghibli template, Arrietty features a number of individuals who, despite operating primarily on one or two levels, are very amusing and touching, lending the overall story with some dramatic heft a bit too many recent animated films lack. Pop cultural references and pithy one liners are not of the order here to develop personalities. Rather, the characters, chief among them Arrietty and Shawn, form a compelling and naturalistic bond (under the circumstances of course), one that leaves a lasting impact even. They are young and must live with their own specific hardships, hence a special connection is formed. The film is not so silly as to explicitly mention that they have a crush on one another, although perceptive viewers will most likely be able to tell if such is the case. Their friendship adds some much welcomed sweetness to their respective narrative and emotional journeys. The ending will certainly leave some with mixed emotions, but in a satisfactory way.
Which brings the discussion to the actual themes of the picture, which, in a funny way, is where the film stumbles, if only somewhat. On a couple of occasions characters will spout ideas about survival, seemingly indicating that this is the principle idea Arrietty concerns itself with. While there are some obvious reasons why that may very well be the intentions of the writer and director (Shawn must have an operation on his heart and Arrietty’s family is always in a constant struggle for survival given the nature of who they are), they actually do not feel as pronounced as some more pertinent ideas which gestate more organically out of the story. For one, the miniscule borrowers have always had to fight to survive, figuratively speaking. Humans have, by and large, always been the enemy for multiple reasons. On the flip side, Shawn, the gigantic human, has for some time already been at the mercy of other people’s help due to his prolonged health related issue. Now, for the first time in their lives, they each get to realize something different: Arrietty understands that not all humans are bad and can accept Shawn’s help, while Shawn has the privilege of doing something good for another as opposed to receiving aid yet again. There is a clear symbiosis to the situations of the two characters, which is why they ultimately compliment each other very well.
The simplicity of the characters, the natural way in which they reach out for one another, and the overall splendid animation lift Arrietty up to high levels. It is, in essence, a sweet tale and a nice little movie that never complicates things with excess baggage. Sometimes though, being a ‘nice little movie’ is all one can ask for.