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The Secret World of Arrietty

Posted by martinteller on July 13, 2012

14-year-old Arrietty and her parents survive by taking items that won’t be missed by their owners… a lump of sugar, a pin, a sheet of tissue.  You see, Arrietty and her kind are only a few inches tall.  They dwell underneath the floorboards in a house occupied by Sadako, an elderly woman, and her housekeeper Haru.  Humans have only had one or two fleeting glimpses of the “little people” over several generations, but when Sadako’s ailing grandson Sho visits, he makes a more significant contact… one which may spell disaster for Arrietty’s family.

The film is based on the novel “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton (interesting to note that three of the last four Studio Ghibli productions have been based on works by Western females, the others being Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin), which has previously been adapted as a couple of TV movies/miniseries and a dreadful-looking comedy with John Goodman.  The plot is somewhat thin, but the movie excels at world-building, bringing Arrietty’s existence to life with wonderful bits of detail.  One of the highlights is Arrietty’s first “borrowing” expedition with her father, watching them navigate through the house with innovative techniques.  It may leave you wondering what’s going on inside your walls.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi was a longtime animator at Ghibli, here making his directorial debut.  He does a fine job of working within the usual Ghibli idiom… a mix of gorgeous, vibrant animation, endearing characters, magic realism, and an air of nostalgic melancholy.  Haru seems a bit broad and cold-hearted for a studio that typically excels in creating well-rounded characters without sharply defined “villains” but otherwise it’s well within the Ghibli style.  Perhaps even too much so, as one would hope that new blood would bring new ideas.  There is a slightness to the film, coming off a bit like a “safe” project for a newcomer to get his feet wet with.

But there is plenty of charm here.  The easygoing pace draws you in, the suspenseful adventure sequences keep you interested, and Arrietty’s plight is engaging.  If you want to go looking for subtext, the struggle of the Borrowers is analogous to any number of displaced civilizations struggling against encroaching imperialism.  One of the other Borrowers even dresses in Native American-looking garb.  The film ends on a touching bittersweet note, and perhaps if the rest of it had as much emotional punch, it would have resonated more.  But it’s still a fine entry in Ghibli’s history, one with a few flaws (did I mention the music? pretty cornball) but enough stellar qualities and memorable scenes to satisfy.  Rating: Good (77)


One Response to “The Secret World of Arrietty”

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