What a beautiful, intelligent and crisp film this is. Granted, it’s usually safe to expect as much from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house best known for producing the films of its co-founder, the great artist Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.). Miyazaki had long wished to adapt Mary Norton‘s 1952 novel The Borrowers, and though he wrote the screenplay and helped supervise the production, this time he handed off the director’s chair to a young protege, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The animation and character art nevertheless retain the signature Miyazaki style, even if the plot has a bit less moral and thematic complexity than one typically finds in the elder maestro’s work. In execution and grace, it is every bit the equal of Miyazaki’s own films.
The title character is an adventurous 14-year-old girl who lives with her parents in an old semi-rural house surrounded by appealingly overgrown gardens. They are “borrowers,” tiny people who scavenge small items from the gargantuan “human beans” who they prefer to keep none the wiser. While out on her first borrowing with her father, Arrietty is inadvertently spotted by 12-year-old Shawn (or Sho in the Japanese track), who is staying in the house to relax before heart surgery. While Shawn is a gentle boy eager to befriend and help his diminutive counterpart, the maid, Hara, who has long suspected the floorboards are “infested” with little people, has a less benign attitude (though still well short of murderous). Faced with imminent discovery, the tiny family considers whether to abandon their longtime home and seek a new place to live.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a world of miniature people depicted quite so evocatively in any film, live action or otherwise. I can’t really say it’s realistic across the board (insects and other creepy-crawlies are a little too cute up close), but The Secret World of Arrietty has an abundance of patience and cleverness in showing us a mundane world magnified. Small details impress, from the “large” droplets of hot tea shaken loose from the teapot, to the echoing sound of a grandfather clock across a cavernous bedroom, even down to the astonishingly subtle difference in friction when a drawer slides into a tiny dresser. If you’ll forgive me while I nudge my spectacles and state it in even nerdier terms, the Ghibli animators paid heed to Galileo’s “square-cube” law, which dictates that large objects and systems don’t neatly scale down to small, or vice versa. Pixar was similarly conscious of this law when they made A Bug’s Life, but one of the joys of Arrietty is beholding the ingenious shrunken human domesticity of the borrowers. Ritz-like crackers are broken up and ground with mortar & pestle, a Bunsen burner glows cheerfully in the kitchen hearth, and the little writing desk is equipped with a quill made from a fly’s wing. I could (and would) go on, but you should just watch it and see for yourself.
The Secret World of Arrietty is one of the easier films for me to recommend for younger viewers in a long time. It has none of the crassness or commercialism one sometimes (but certainly not always) finds in today’s CGI-animated films. Critics have been fond of complimenting it for being “quiet,” but I think a more descriptive word is “tranquil.” Indeed, one of the film’s greatest charms is the phenomenal world of sound it conveys. If you can, I’d strongly recommend turning the volume up on your best speakers for this one. There are some scenes smaller kids might find scary, but I’m actually inclined to suspect that adults, with our comparatively more nightmarish imaginations, might just feel more terror than children will. For the record, nothing too bad actually happens. A little scariness is good for all of us, anyway. Watch this movie. It is a clever, engaging and gorgeously realized piece of entertainment for all ages. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 5/22/12