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.