The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) [Disney]
Anthony Romero
February 20, 2012
Note: review may contain spoilers

It's not all that often that a Toho film gets a wide release outside of Japan... unless that particular movie happens to be a joint venture with Studio Ghibli as is the case here with The Secret World of Arrietty. Now this is my third Studio Ghibli film that I have seen in theaters, entering a rather lofty crowd that includes Princess Mononoke (1997) and Ponyo (2008). This particular version is one that Disney, who like Toho also jointly produces these films, created for the US market. In terms of how The Secret World of Arrietty fares, its an enjoyable movie with good story execution and characters, good animation, and boasting a whimsical, if not over bearing, musical score from Cecile Corbel. The Disney version is good for a dub, although not quite at the same level as their other theatrical releases due to some miscasting.

For the story, young Arrietty, a small creature called a borrower, is going on her first borrowing mission with her father: a rite of passage and how the borrowers survive. This entails entering the house that the live underneath to gather supplies, careful to not make their presence known through only taking very small portions. However, they are spotted by Sho (Shawn in the US version), a sickly boy who recently moved there. The pair retreat, but Sho becomes fascinated with Arrietty, attempting to befriend her. While the small boy has good intentions, his actions come with consequences from an aroused curiosity from his caretaker, Haru, and from Arrietty's father who feels that once a borrower is discovered it's time to move.

The plot, which is taken from Mary Norton's Borrowers book series, is simple enough in concept. The pacing is a bit slow for a Ghibli film, as the movie spends a good deal of time building up the world of the borrowers before things get interesting. While this development time pays off, the pacing only really recovers toward the second half of the production. The movie also suffers a little from the stakes not being as high as they could be, especially near the climax when Arrietty enters a nice heroic arc yet somehow her father is totally absent, without explanation, and loses on giving this moment more emotional weight. Sadly, the story's chief downfall is simply that it draws unavoidable comparisons to the great films of Hayao Miyazaki to which it can't hope to compare and is an unfair contrast. Still, a simple story can be effective and first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi certainly works well with the material.

Although the story might be fairly simple, the movie excels in crafting characters to inhibit it. Arrietty exhibits Miyazaki's trademark, strong willed sensibilities. He only penned the screenplay for this particular production, but his touch is evident as he has a remarkable talent for crafting female characters who are great role models and never sexualized, a bit of an oddity for a lot animation inside Japan today. Sho is also given some nice depth, with a rather serious illness that lets him connect more to the blight of the borrowers and a bit of tragedy as his efforts to help them at first only make things worse. The family dynamic within the Borrower household is also well developed, and their fear of how many of their species might be left gives some nice material to play with from their interactions.

The animation is worth talking about as well, as its been a bit of a hot topic since Ponyo (2008) for Studio Ghibli films. First, the attention to detail here is often extraordinary. The artists do wonders in capturing the small scale of the Borrower's world, especially in regards to water and other fluids which are represented as they should be, drops, and done in a manner that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. That said, there are a number of scenes, especially when characters are further away, when details simply vanish. Neeya, the cat in the movie, tends to suffer from this loss of detail the most.

In terms of the score, its actually done by Cecile Corbel, a French singer who is fluent in an incredible range of languages. Her work here is all pretty enjoyable as a stand alone experience, although the score doesn't always fit in the movie. To be frank, the soundtrack sometimes draws too much attention to itself. The songs in particular suffer from this, as they sometimes drag the viewer out of the movie and feel like an instrumental only version would have been better. When Corbel is doing instrumental work, however, she captures a nice bouncy feel that elevates the overall enjoyment.

Now I can't get away without talking about this particular version of the film that Disney released in theaters. To give credit where it's due, Disney has done a phenomenal job with dubbing the Studio Ghibli productions. While Miramax, at the time a division of the company, paved the way with Princess Mononoke (1997), it has been the parent company that has carried the torch with getting quality English versions of these movies created. By all accounts, The Secret of Arrietty is a good English dub, but not at the same level as their previous efforts. This is mostly due to miscasting, with the worst offense being Amy Poehler as Arrietty's mother. Poehler does well with physical comedy in her career, but is far too over the top in her dubbing. Part of the problem is the English script, which seems to add lines for her character and in general doesn't seem to want a moment of silence to pass. On the flip side, Poehler's real life husband Will Arnet does a great job playing Arrietty's father. He plays the role straight and commands a degree of respect that makes the character work. In general, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the movie. The music is mostly untouched as well, save a new pop song that is added from Bridgit Mendler which is awful but thankfully reserved to halfway through the credits where most will miss it.

Overall, this is another enjoyable animated film to add to Studio Ghibli's resume. It's nothing amazing and doesn't resonate the way some of the studio's best work does, but is a recommendable effort that is given a pretty decent release by Disney as well.