The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) [Disney]

Author: Nicholas Driscoll
March 16, 2012
Note: review may contain spoilers

For any person, I suppose, the appreciation we have for any particular movie is at least partially influenced by the circumstances that led up to and included the viewing experience itself. For me, being a long-time fan of Ghibli movies (Spirited Away is my default answer to the question “What is your favorite film?”), I had been eyeing The Secret World of Arrietty for some time, hoping for my chance to view it. The time came finally earlier this year, during a crunch in my graduate work, and during a fractured and confusing time in my social life. With papers to write piled high, and papers to grade stacked even higher, the practicality of going out to the movies for an evening (especially, in this case, to a movie at a theater about an hour away) seemed unwise at best, irresponsible at worst.

But fandom won out, and, in the clutches of a chronological and emotional crunch, I went with a snatch of friends on a quiet, outwardly peaceful Monday eve. As a salve to my homework-addled conscience, I took along a textbook to peruse in the backseat of my friend’s car, and fumbled through the pages on the way. But once I was inside the theater, staring up at a monstrous screen, belly full of an unexpectedly free ice cream cone courtesy of a generous Chick-Fil-A employee, all the strains and pains of my tumultuous academic life were taken from me, replaced with the simple, quiet wonder of a world well-realized and a story well-told.

The Secret World of Arrietty is loosely based on the YA novel series The Borrowers by Mary Norton, who also wrote the source material for the Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. My earliest exposure to Norton’s miniature universe was when my mother began reading the books to me when I was a child, but she found them too boring to continue. (I don’t remember the incident at all, but her memories, and the John Goodman live-action film version from the 90s, did not make me keen on the source material.) Norton’s books have been adapted several times over the years, and Hayao Miyazaki (the screenwriter here, but not the director, first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi) took the source material here and stayed relatively faithful (at least compared to some other Ghibli adaptations), keeping with the same basic set of characters, but transplanting the setting from England to rural Japan.

The story begins with the arrival of Shawn (in the American version—Sho in the Japanese) at a quaint rural house to rest up for upcoming heart surgery. As he approaches the building, he thinks he sees something strange moving amongst the weeds. Thus we are introduced to the other protagonist of our story—Arrietty, a vibrant, brave (perhaps overly so) young girl known as a “borrower,” and a member (with her father and mother) of a small family of Borrowers living under the house. Arrietty is just now of age to take part in the serious business of “borrowing” from the “beans” (the humans) with her father, Pod. Unfortunately, on their first borrowing mission together, things go awry when Shawn spots Arrietty in the process of stealing a tissue. This chance encounter shakes the little borrowers deeply, and as the humans become more curious about the little ones living amongst them, the lives of Arrietty and her family becoming increasingly endangered, even as Shawn tries his hardest to protect them.

The story of The Secret World of Arrietty moves very slowly, with a long stretch of time devoted to world-building and the establishment of the main characters, especially Arrietty and her family. There is a peaceful progression, with an emphasis on depicting the enormity of the world from the borrowers’ perspective. A steady stream of clever touches illustrate the Borrowers’ ingenuity using tiny, incidental, everyday objects as ingenious tools, such as double-sided tape for a climbing instrument, and the wonder of the world created therein resonated with my own heart-held wonder. An obvious joyful dedication to careful craft was put into the world and the art, and invigorates the world, even when nothing particularly exciting is happening on-screen.

In direct contrast to popular children’s films in America, underscored by the trailers I watched for films like Madagascar 3 before the movie proper started, Arrietty is quiet and contemplative rather than raucous and bursting with action and gags. Throughout the film, the humor is gentle, and rarely is there ever a real “action sequence,” with characters in real danger. (The most notable exception—an attack by a hungry and monstrous crow—is concluded comically.) In this sense, Arrietty is much more akin to other slice-of-life Ghibli films like Kiki’s Delivery ServiceOnly Yesterday or My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Indeed, Arrietty’s story mirrors My Neighbor Totoro (1988) in a number of key ways. In both Totoro and Arrietty, young people move to a rural setting and encounter something supernatural. With Totoro, two girls meet a giant bear-like forest spirit, and with Arrietty it's a young boy meeting a tiny elf-like girl. In both stories, the relationship between the respective children and their new, supernatural friends is built up slowly with a crisis climax, and both stories deal with the fragility of life.

Here, in plumbing the depths of mortality, is where Arrietty really excels with a surprising poignancy. Arrietty and her family are, by virtue of being so small, at the mercy of a million commonplace dangers. Throughout the movie we are reminded repeatedly of just how few borrowers are left in the world, and how the slightest mistake can mean doom at the claws of a cat, the teeth of a rat, or even the tongue of a toad. Despite that, Arrietty is brave, even reckless, embracing life, running hard against the limits of her size. In contrast to Arrietty, Shawn is a giant, able to crush the tiny girl without thinking, a mountain of power. Yet, with his heart condition, even running is a deadly task for him, and he has largely resigned himself to dying. He knows his body could shatter; he practically expects it to. Here we have an unexpected link, where teetering on the edge of death somehow forges a connection in life.

In carrying out these themes, the actors give serviceable performances, although Disney has pulled together an unlikely crew, with somewhat mixed results. Arrietty is played by Bridget Miller, who is probably most well known for her work on Disney Channel programming such as The Wizards of Waverly Place and Good Luck Charlie. Miller injects Arrietty with an ebullient personality, and gives off the character’s excitement and determination well. David Henry (also of The Wizards of Waverly Place) as Shawn is somewhat less successful, making his voice soft to show Shawn’s bodily weakness, but not compensating quite enough to show the true character within. Oddly, despite the lack of overt humor in the script and subject matter, the cast is rounded out mostly with comedians, with SNL’s Amy Poehler as Arrietty’s mother Homily, Arrested Development’s Will Arnett as Arrietty’s father Pod, and longtime comedienne extraordinaire Carol Burnett as the scheming housekeeper, Hara. With very little in the way of comedic dialogue, we have what seems to be a series of miscasts. Arnett does fine as the mostly quiet Pod, and Burnett manages a smidge of mild menace as Hara, while Poehler aims over the top (and succeeds) with her eccentric, jumpy rendition of Homily. I didn’t think any of the performances were terrible, but a more restrained Homily might have served the film better. I came away scratching my head a little bit, and have to wonder how the cast of the British dub fares.

Keeping with the international theme here, music, oddly enough, was provided by French musician Cecile Corbel, and her instrumental numbers are spunky and appropriate. Honestly, at first I thought this movie was scored by the usual brilliant Joe Hisaishi, but Corbel does a nice job, albeit none of her songs struck me with the same irresistibility of, say, the Totoro jingle or the signature theme of Castle in the Sky. Occasionally, Corbel incorporates a few English songs (with lyrics) into the movie, and these are jarring and feel out of place.

Despite these small quibbles, Arrietty excels. Although the animation may not be quite as beautiful and detailed as Spirited Away (2001), and a few plot details seem overly convenient (as Anthony Romero notes in his review), overall I was overtaken by this film. On my drive home, though I had planned to do my homework, I found myself gazing out the window thinking about the plot and the world-building and just how saturated with happiness I was, and that buzz continued throughout my week. After watching The Secret World of Arrietty, I wondered why I often watch so many excruciatingly dumb movies (recent example: Sharktopus), and was galvanized to write quality stories of my own. Indeed, Arrietty’s world is wonder-filled, and I hope that is not held secret for long.