Mania Review: The Secret World of Arrietty -

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  • Starring: Bridgit Mendler, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, David Henrie and Carol Burnet
  • Written by: Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
  • Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
  • Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
  • Rating: G
  • Run Time: 94 minutes
  • Series:

Mania Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

Ghibli does it again

By Rob Vaux     February 17, 2012

 You won’t spot Hayao Miyazaki’s name on the directing credits of The Secret World of Arrietty, but his studio’s DNA is inextricably woven into its fabric. First-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi – who worked as an animator for most of Studio Ghibli’s titles for the last thirteen years – steps into the big chair without missing a beat. Arrietty carries the same gentle urgency as other Ghibli films: the same mixture of kindness, tragedy and sermonizing that helped create the most dynamic animation studio in the world. Miyazaki stands firmly in the wings with screenwriting and story credits, but his protégé knows the beats too well to ruin the dance.

Arrietty distinguishes itself from other Ghibli efforts by its marriage of eastern and western sensibilities. It’s based on an English children’s book about tiny folk called Borrowers who live under the floorboards of people’s houses and filch tiny items they need to survive. Arrietty devotes itself to its European fairy tale aspects, despite a nominal shift in locales to Japan, and does away with the otherworldly surrealism of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Ghibli’s typically gorgeous animation fits it perfectly, with hand-drawn images reveling in small movements and landscapes rather than bright and spastic imagery that often accompanies CG animation. We revel in the details of this world: the garden, the nearby woods, the clutter of the house and the Borrowers’ miniature lives built ingeniously out of nails and similar knickknacks.

The film also holds the perils of life as a Borrower close to its heart. They must constantly be on guard against discovery by the big folk, but also against predators, sudden rainstorms and any of the myriad threats waiting for beings the size of a fountain pen. Another movie might simply focus on the magic of their lives. This one places them in a real universe with real dangers (including one of Ghibli’s perfectly rendered cats) and consequences that run far deeper that simple exposure.

Arrietty herself (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a girl of fourteen, chaffing against the tight restrictions imposed by her parents and ready to go out borrowing for herself. Her dour father (voiced by Will Arnett) and panicky mother (voiced by Amy Poehler) worry about her headstrong nature, but reluctantly agree to a supervised excursion. That’s when she meets the human boy who has come to their house – weak with a heart condition and amazed at the inadvertent appearance of these wondrous beings. Their strange friendship must survive the machinations of the house’s servant (voiced by Carol Burnett), who suspects the existence of the Borrowers and wants to prove it to everyone.

Yonebayashi builds the tension slowly and leisurely, allowing us to explore the scenario rather than rushing us through the particulars. Threats build slowly or arrive suddenly, but never serve as the sole purpose of the exercise. The director wants us to understand how these creatures live, why they exercise such caution and how even well-meaning humans constitute a dire threat. Beneath it lie quiet lessons that matriculate through the drama rather than pounding us on the head. Arrietty urges us to look for the magic in the world, but also to be kind and gentle to the things we find there. We cannot destroy harshness or cruelty, but we don’t have to contribute to it, and in our efforts, we may even allow something special to survive.

That lacks the urgency of Mononoke and the depth of Spirited Away, but its simpler story speaks volumes with brisk, elegant strokes. Sugar-addled kids may find the pacing a tad slow; the movie wants you to linger rather than rushing forward to the next grand event. Younger children and more thoughtful preteens will likely be enchanted, however, and parents will find something that – like a lot of Ghibli movies – can make for some very good family moments. Miyazaki fans will be delighted of course, and even those worried about the new name in the director’s chair can rest assured that we’re in good hands. How sad that such efforts rarely find the audience they deserve; that they never duke it out with Pixar over box office bragging rights for any given year. Then again, Ghibli does keep releasing outstanding films, box office be damned. Yonebayashi’s work here suggests that, even when the master finally decides to step down, a new generation is more than ready to carry on his tradition.


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wrrlykam 2/17/2012 12:49:01 AM

I'm told that the differences between the UK and US dub do change the tone of the film somewhat. I can't find the message from the Miyazaki mailing list which explained the changes.

Still I enjoyed the UK screening and I would  like to get the US release to compare them. Given how brash and in your face some animation cann be these days Arrietty is a refreshing change. Thankfully no singing bats/teapotsetc or sarcastic comedy donkeys.

Oh by the way you have a typo it is Princess Mononoke not Monoke.

Dazzler 2/17/2012 4:21:28 AM

The Littles movie?  *We are the littles...*

vitieddie 2/17/2012 4:55:28 AM

this film sounds good - will watch it soon

recently watched Children who chase lost voices in the deep (something like that) ... a beautifully animated movie that reminded me of Ghibli - lots of lingering in that movie with nostalgic views of the simple life ... encourage the maniacs to check it out

Ryodin 2/17/2012 6:16:42 AM

Dazzler, LOL! I was about to say something along the lines of: "I liked this better back when it was called 'The Littles'" Glad to see someone else remembers that cartoon series. :)

But it's also funny because the art style looks almost exactly the same between the two. What's up with that?

karas1 2/17/2012 7:04:45 AM

I remember reading The Borrowers books back in the 70's when I was an elementary schooler.  If The Littles is younger than they then The Borrowers was probably their source material.

MrJawbreakingEquilibrium 2/17/2012 12:49:22 PM

I know, right, The Borrowers are way older than the Littles.

InnerSanctum 2/17/2012 3:08:11 PM

 Those Koren sweat shops can crank out the craziest cartoons.  

GothicStorm 2/18/2012 12:22:54 AM

You guys really know how to pick apart a kid's movie don't you? It's as if Hollywood has NEVER copied itself EVER. I can't even type that without laughing out loud and then throwing up a little in my mouth. Seriously, Hollywood makes me sick these days with their lack of originality. Thank goodness for comic book movies right? If it weren't for comic books, Hollywood would have kept pumping out Scooby Doo and Flintstone movies... Although I have read where a Jetsons movie is now in the works.

Guys, no kids going to see this movie have ever even heard of The Littles and only a small percentage have read The Borrowers (much less seen the live-action movie). Studio Ghibli has done nothing but create completely original cartoon movies. The director of this movie has played it safe and taken a beloved WESTERN novel and given it a new spin for kids all around the world. Let's give credit where credit is due please.

Oh and InnerSanctum... Studio Ghibli is Japanese not Korean. I bet you were that kid who said Texas was the biggest state in the U.S. weren't you?    ;~)

GothicStorm 2/18/2012 1:05:10 AM

Also, The Borrowers novel was published in 1952 whereas The Littles novel was published in 1967. "Here Come The Littles" animated feature film was released in 1985, but the animated series aired on ABC Saturday mornings from Sept. 1983 until Nov. 1985. There were 4 sequels to "The Borrowers", the final one coming in 1982...a year before the release of "The Littles" animated series.

Heck, even the trailer SAYS the movie is based on "The Borrowers"! After all, the lead character, 14 year-old Arrietty, is the same age and has the same name as the daughter who lives with her parents in "The Borrowers". The 'human beans' bring in a cat, who looks eerily similar to the obese cat in "The Cat Returns" and "Whisper of the Heart". And finally, the human boy in the movie is recovering from a sickness just as the boy in "The Borrowers" was. Obviously all copyrights have been covered and permission was given (or bought) in order to create and release this film.

You guys can argue all day about who copied who, but for the TRUE fans of animated movies (kids and families)... They could care less. All they want is to go see a movie without all the over-commercialization and worn-out marketting that nearly every kids movie has these days.

Ryodin, I'm not sure what you are seeing in the comparison between the art styles of this movie and The Littles cartoon series. The only thing I see is that both were DRAWN instead of designed and animated by computer. The art style in The Littles was more Alvin and the Chipmunks. Go watch some Studio Ghibli movies and you will see where the art style comes from. Heck, the director is one of the former animators! Way to keep the talent under one roof, Ghibli!

zathras6767 2/21/2012 2:31:15 PM

Has anyone gone to see this film besides my best friend and I?.Gang,you are missing out on something special.I mst admit I had doubts,and was reluctant to see it,but my friend bought the Roman Album for "Arietty"and there was a shot of a single frame (in pencil)involving the title character and a grasshopper."Now I'm convinced!" I said.My friend shook his head sadly,with a "you-only-now-figured-it-out?"look on his face.Personally,I would rank it with "Pompoko" "Whisper Of The Heart" or "The Cat Returns".A great time.

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