Residing quietly beneath the floorboards are little people who live undetected in a secret world to be discovered, where the smallest may stand tallest of all. From the legendary Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Ponyo) comes The Secret World of Arrietty, an animated adventure based on Mary Norton's acclaimed children's book series "The Borrowers."
Arrietty (voice of Bridgit Mendler), a tiny, but tenacious 14-year-old, lives with her parents (voices of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) in the recesses of a suburban garden home, unbeknownst to the homeowner and her housekeeper (voice of Carol Burnett). Like all little people, Arrietty (AIR-ee-ett-ee) remains hidden from view, except during occasional covert ventures beyond the floorboards to "borrow" scrap supplies like sugar cubes from her human hosts. But when 12-year-old Shawn (voice of David Henrie), a human boy who comes to stay in the home, discovers his mysterious housemate one evening, a secret friendship blossoms. If discovered, their relationship could drive Arrietty's family from the home and straight into danger. The English language version of The Secret World of Arrietty was executive produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and directed by Gary Rydstrom.
The concept of a world living within yet hidden in our world is not unfamiliar territory for movies. From the cyber punk dream prison of The Matrix to the child fantasy of Toy Story, many films have taken on the idea that there are stories going on right in front of us that we are completely unaware of. So it is with The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney's newest imported film from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese production company cofounded by the famous animation director Hayao Miyazaki.
The Secret World of Arrietty focuses on a young girl named Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), who is a member of a race of people known as Borrowers, miniature people who live within the walls and under the floors of houses and survive off of "borrowing" insignificant amounts of food and items that the humans of the house will not miss. On the day of Arrietty's first borrowing adventure with her father Pod (Will Arrnett), she is spotted by a sickly human boy named Shawn (David Henrie), who becomes fascinated with her and the world in which she lives. The story develops into a plot of bravery, fragility, and the subject of facing death early in life as Arrietty and her family must escape the house before Shawn's housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) captures her family and reviles there existence to the world.
Arrietty is an extremely simple movie to follow story-wise, leaving most of the audience's focus to follow its art style and tone. Arrietty is a likeable teenage-tomboy archetype made up of equal parts Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Mulan of Mulan and works well as a focal point to the story. Her relationship with Shawn is probably the most interesting part of the plot, with a constant back and forth between the two protecting each other from their separate frailties of Shawn's sickness and the threat of the outside world that Arrietty faces everyday because of her size. They both bond over the restrictive nature of their existence and both find themselves extremely curious of each others worlds despite the warning of both Arrietty's parents and Shawn's aunt and housekeeper to stay away from each other.
While the movie is mostly quiet and has some darker undertones of danger and death, it is not without its humor. This mostly stems from Carol Burneett's character and Arrietty's mother Homily (Amy Pollard), who both seem to stand on the fringe of understanding what is going on in the story yet remain too stuck in their daily routines to fully grasp it. The two also have a cat and mouse like chase scene that acts as the big laugh moment of the movie and works to keep the tone more family friendly between the more morbid scenes.
The movie is a great example of what can be accomplished with a Japanese style of animation that has a large amount of ambition. Anyone who was a fan of Studio Ghibli's other releases such as Spirited Away and Ponyo would be well off seeing The Secret World of Arrietty.
The Secret World of Arrietty suffers somewhat having gone to it's third set of vocal talent by the time it reached the American audience (first having the original Japanese cast and then a separate British cast). This causes much of the dialogue to strain through having to be translated between languages and then synced correctly, which causes some of the lines to be spoken at odd speeds or with odd tones. The actors themselves however do not tend to fault, with Bridgit Mendler being very pleasant and enjoyable with her portrayal of Arrietty. Will Arrnet, who is mostly known for his over the top comedy roles, lends his low baritone well to Arrietty's father giving him a sort of firm but gentle authority as a character. While all the voices are proficient, it may leave the audience to wonder how much more alive and coherent the voices could have been if the characters had been originally made for the American voice actors rather than having to be dubbed after creation.
Studio Ghibli has become world renowned for its movie's unique and highly stylized art. Arrietty continues this tradition with highly detailed and focused animation making up the world the movie takes place in. The settings are reminiscent of Toy Story, with set pieces being scaled up, everyday household objects taking on new uses and looks with the changes in size from humans to Borrowers (hanging nails in walls become foot bridges, double sided tape becomes climbing equipment, pins become swords, etc.).
Beyond the creative make-up of the world, the animation is extremely detailed and sharp, with everything from a cat's movements to the unlatching of Velcro being detailed in a very precise way. This truly makes the movie visually stunning and is an interesting change of pace from Ghibli's last creation Ponyo, which focused much more on being understated and stylized than its accuracy.
Animation, Children and Family
February 17, 2012