The Secret World of Arrietty

What It Is

Arriving at his grandmother’s home, Shawn (voiced in this US translation by David Henrie) looks tired. He’s been sick, and what’s more, his parents are divorcing, which can only mean life at home has been difficult. At his grandmother’s place in the country, he’s supposed to rest and prepare himself for an upcoming heart surgery.

His story doesn’t quite go as planned. Instead, like a lot of lonely, imaginative, and curious boys in children’s stories — especially in the enchanting sorts of stories animated at Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli — Shawn embarks on an adventure. In The Secret World of Arrietty, this adventure begins when he discovers Arrietty Clock (Bridgit Mendler), a 13-year-old girl who’s just a couple of inches tall and lives under his grandmother’s house.

The two meet when Arrietty accompanies her father Pod (Will Arnett) on her first official “borrowing” excursion. They sneak up through walls and crawl through vents in order to gain access to the giant “human beans“ storehouse of goods, from sugar cubes and cookies to facial tissues and a straight pin Arrietty repurposes as a sword. Because they only take tiny bits or one piece of many, the borrowers’ activities remain undetected, even though, Shawn learns, some of his relatives (including his absent and much missed mother) have been guessing at their existence for years.

The movie, based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers, goes on to split its perspectives between Shawn and Arrietty: after a brief and accidental sighting on Arrietty’s first night out, he wants to make contact, while she’s instructed by her unflappable father and anxious mother Homily (Amy Poehler) never to interact with the beans, who are by constitution untrustworthy and dangerous to borrowers. The film’s loudest demonstration of this threat comes in the form of the grandmother’s housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), who goes so far as to capture one of the borrowers and imprison her in a jar in the pantry.

Shawn takes pretty much the opposite approach, determining instead to help Arrietty and her family escape Hara and any other bean who might want to possess or otherwise abuse them. The film offers a complicated friendship and collaboration toward this end, where Shawn’s size is very helpful in some instances, and Arrietty’s in others.

And sometimes, their differences turn into parallels, as when the Clocks decide that their welcome at the grandmother’s house has worn out, and just at that moment, discover that other (previously rumored) borrowers exist elsewhere. Their new friend is Spiller (Moises Arias), a kid with paint on his face and rudimentary costume whose minimalist language and advanced survival skills provide an effective counterpoint for the Clocks’ “middle class” habits and aspirations. Many sorts of individual contributions help make families and communities, and these contributors also come in assorted shapes and sizes.

Why It’s Fun

The animation — both delicate and lively — is charming, much like other films by Studio Ghibli. Here the visual details help to create two worlds, related and shared, but also completely dissimilar. It’s a terrific lesson and visual delight both, to see the different ways that Shawn or Arrietty might view a crow or a piece of paper or the cat (who first tries to chase after Arrietty but then, at Shawn’s urging, becomes a protector). The lovely soundtrack by Cecile Corbel also helps to fill out these worlds so full of emotions as well.

Who’s Going To Love It

Fans of Studio Ghibli films — Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, as well as Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo — will be thrilled to see this new film, which is already a success in Asia and the UK.

Fans of The Borrower will also be pleased to see this intelligent translation to screen.

Also recommended for viewers looking for alternatives to singing chipmunks and 3D car chases.

What To Be Aware Of

While the characterization of Spiller has a thematic context, it’s also going to need some explaining. While his “primitive” characterization isn’t nearly so egregious as that of the “Indians” in Peter Pan and though he’s welcomed by Arrietty and her father right away, Spiller remains a limited presence in the film, one of those too familiar “native” guides to the new world outside the backyard.

Shawn’s illness (and his suggestion to Arrietty that he might die soon) might raise questions for young viewers, as might his mother’s decision to leave him in order to go on a business trip. These are handled in the movie mostly in dialogue (Shawn appears out of breath at one point, and rests frequently, in bed or on the lawn outside).

The invasions of the Clocks’ home — first when Shawn installs a new “dollhouse kitchen” and then when Hara kidnaps Homily — are rendered in ways so you can feel how frightening such experience would be, with loud noises on the soundtrack and slamming visuals.

Arrietty is the coolest little girl in a recent movie. Smart, inventive, and brave, she’s a terrific model for boys and girls. Her mother is less so, as anxiety can sometimes turn shrill.

The American cast voices will inevitably lose something in translation. While the effort to draw viewers by casting popular US actors is understandable, it also seems to underestimate those viewers, who would likely come to hear the UK voices too.

The end of the film is an inevitable parting of the ways for Arrietty and Shawn: this is sad, but they both understand why it must be.

See-It-Again Points

9 out of 10

Film Information

The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gary Rydstrom
Cast: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, David Henrie, Moises Arias
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2010
Rated: G
US Premiere: February 16, 2012
UK Premiere: July 11, 2011
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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