In an industry where animation has begun to all look and feel the same—thanks partly to the standard set by Pixar—The Secret World of Arrietty arrives as a breath of fresh air. Slow, calm and quiet with beautifully detailed imagery, the Japanese fantasy may not be the greatest achievement of Studio Ghibli, which has given us the likes of My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but it’s a real charmer with a big imagination—the sort of film children need to grow up on.
Adapted by screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki (the studio’s top director) from Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s novel The Borrowers, the story centers on Arrietty, a teenage tiny person who lives with her family below the floorboards of a home in modern-day Tokyo. When Shawn, a young “bean” (human), moves into the house to spend time with his grandma and spots the little “borrowers,” Arrietty and her family face a dilemma: despite Shawn’s gentle demeanor, his awareness of them threatens their very existence. Nonetheless, Arrietty forms a friendship with Shawn, who gains her trust after revealing to her that he is terminally ill.
Though it builds with angst toward an eventual climax as Arrietty’s family decides what to do, The Secret World of Arrietty is a film as interested in the particular elements of the story as in the actual outcome of it. This is especially true of the bond formed between Arrietty and Shawn. These two couldn’t be in any more different worlds—one a human boy on his way to dying young and the other a tiny little girl full of joy and aspirations—but their relationship triggers a change in both of them for the better. Arrietty, in all her optimism, inspires Shawn to push forward and seek life, while Shawn helps her understand and see the world in a new light. He teaches her responsibility and perspective. He teaches her to grow up.
As much as the implications of their friendship resonate, The Secret World of Arrietty, like its title suggests, ultimately concerns itself with the importance of the small things in life and how the imagination influences how we view and experience them. The film urges the viewer to look at the world with new eyes, searching for beauty and worth in the places that are normally overlooked as commonplace.
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and his team of animators bring this lesson home through the simplicity of still, stable shots and graceful, hand-drawn animation that highlight the sanctity and splendor of the ordinary. The minimal, underplayed visuals evoke the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and, along with a majestic score by Cecile Corbel, create an overwhelming sense of realness—of humanness—in the midst of a surreal story.
There are a few missteps. The English voiceovers are not always as seamless as one might wish, and the story in some ways ends too abruptly. Such flaws are few, however, and easy to forgive given how much of the film works (and how well). As alluring and enlightening as it is gentle and sincere, The Secret World of Arrietty reminds us that even the smallest things can possess a grandeur that dwarfs us all.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gary Rydstrom
Writer: Mary Norton (Novel), Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
Starring: Bridgit Mendler (voice), Will Arnett (voice), Amy Poehler (voice), David Henrie (voice)
Release Date: Feb. 17, 2012