The Secret World of Arietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietty)
dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney, 94 min.
Release Dates: 7/17/10 (Japan), 2/17/12 (US)
Starring (US dub cast): Bridgit Mendler (Arietty), Will Arnett (Pod), Amy Poehler (Homily), David Henrie (Shawn), Carol Burnett (Hara)
Young Arietty, the daughter of loving parents Pod and Homily, is a Borrower—a race of miniature people who live in the baseboards of human houses and “borrow” cast off items for their needs: a single sugar cube, a sheet of tissue paper, pins. They spend their time avoiding menaces such as cats, crows, insects, and above all else, being seen by the giant “human beans.” However, one day, a sickly young boy named Shawn arrives in the house they share with his aunt Jessica and their housekeeper, Hara. Shawn catches a glimpse of Arietty when she is out on her first “borrowing” expedition with her father, and thus begins an unlikely friendship that will change her, and her family, and his own life.
The story is based on the 1952 children’s novel by Mary Norton, The Borrowers.
The Secret World of Arietty, or Arietty the Borrower, is not the first of its kind: a film penned by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by someone else. The last such film was the heartwarming coming-of-age tale Whisper of the Heart (1995), which, with its memorable take on “Take Me Home Country Road,” still remains one of the great anime stories about the birth of a young artist. Arietty is not quite the equal of that masterwork, but there is plenty here to savor nonetheless.
Miyazaki’s animation, at its best, has always been able to convey a sense of wonder and grandeur. That tradition continues in Arietty, though not through grand vistas, soaring flights, and surreal sights: this time, it is by magnifying the ordinary household and its environment to a place full of danger, adventure, and life. Leaves shimmering with dew and rainwater are canopies for the tiny Arietty. Nails hammered into the wall are steps, and the side of a cabinet a tall cliff. An intricate dollhouse is a luxurious mansion. Much work was clearly done examining the physics of smallness: cups and teapots are filled with single droplets, sounds like refrigerator hums and footsteps become ominous echoes. For the Borrowers, the world is both scary and (for Arietty, at least) full of exciting possibility. This sense of scale is perhaps the film’s greatest success, and rightly so: if this aspect did not work, nothing else would have. It helps the audience take Arietty and her family’s predicament seriously. The first twenty minutes—Arietty’s first “borrowing” expedition with her father—convey the necessary tension, secrecy, and urgency.
After that sequence, the plot slows down to a more leisurely pace, focusing on the growing relationship between Arietty and the sickly human boy who has been brought to live in the house, Shawn. Since this is a film that does not rely on the grand gesture or the surreal, their friendship is conveyed through relatively quiet and restrained means: a sugar cube with a tiny note. Conversations in the field and through screen windows. These moments, accompanied by the gorgeously haunting Celtic soundtrack by French singer/composer Cecile Corbel, are beautiful in their simplicity and directness, free of the increasingly surreal accoutrements of Miyazaki’s recent works. (The use of insert songs, however, are not quite so successful and tend to be a bit overbearing—one of the signs that this is not a Miyazaki-directed film. He never uses insert songs.) The plot only seems to hiccup in the final act, when the Borrower family is about to leave, but this is more than made up for in the film’s final scene before credits, which earns its warmth and tenderness. It is, in fact, a little more natural than the final scene of Whisper of the Heart, which contains one of Miyazaki’s all-time left field conclusions. (Those who have seen the film will know what I mean.)
Disney usually picks solid voice actors for the dub, and this is no exception. Arietty, played by 20-year-old Brigit Mendler, sounds like a real teenager and like most Ghibli heroines is risk-taking and spunky enough to keep the otherwise languid plot moving. Her interaction with her parents, Homily (Amy Poehler) and Pod (Will Arnett), is natural and believable, which adds great credibility. Arnett does not use his usual comic talent here, opting instead to intone his deep manly baritone. Poehler is put to great use as the frazzled and easily frightened Homily, reminding me of the freak out moments in her role as Leslie Knoppe in Parks and Recreation. Carol Burnett, as the suspicious housekeeper Hara, gives a great comic performance filled with different moods ranging from suspicion to frantic exasperation, though her motivation for ruining the lives of “the little people” seems underdeveloped. Shawn’s American voice actor, David Henrie, conveys a sense of melancholy and helplessness at his possible death that teeters on maudlin at times—the only somewhat uneven voice acting performance in an otherwise solid cast. He is also supposed to be 12 years old, but sounds much older. (Then again, if he had the sort of voice heard in shows like, for instance, Naruto, that would be far worse, so this is a minor complaint at most.)
Ultimately, Arietty is best understood as a small-scale coming-of-age story, both for Arietty and Shawn. Their encounters are relatively brief, and so don’t quite hit the deep longing that Whisper of the Heart tap into so well, save perhaps for the one scene where Shawn talks about his impending operation. Then again, not all films need to: as a depiction of the wonders of the ordinary world, as a light-hearted adventure, and a portrait of two young people becoming unlikely friends, Arietty is more than competent. This would be a triumph coming from any other studio, and it’s only with Ghibli that it is simply a solid entry alongside formidible masterpieces and classics: a testament to the studio’s greatness and consistency. They just know how to make ’em, is all.
The Secret World of Arietty is currently playing in US theaters nationwide.