Anytime a new Studio Ghibli film comes out is time for celebration. Especially when Hayao Miyazaki is at the helm. Even his lesser works, like the recent Ponyo, are still better than nearly any other animated films released in any given year. Miyazaki did not helm The Secret World of Arrietty, but he did write the screenplay and oversaw the production. First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked as an animator on several previous Ghibli films, proves his worth here. Arrietty is a wonderful film.
The Secret World of Arrietty is the story about the relationship between Arrietty, a tiny Borrower, and Shawn, the sick young boy who moves into the house where Arietty and her parent live. She and her parents are Borrowers, people about six inches tall that live under the floorboards. They sneak around at night to borrower everything they need to live, like sugar cubes and the occasional tissue. They are careful to not let any of the big people to see them, lest their curiosity accidentally, or intentionally, doom the tiny folks. Despite this, Arrietty and Shawn form a friendship that simultaneously proves that interaction with people need not necessarily doom the Borrowers and that avoiding them is absolutely for the best. As a side note, Spiller, a wildman borrower who helps out Pod, steals both scenes he is in.
As always from Ghibli, Arrietty looks amazing. The animation quality is top notch, and the settings and backgrounds are absolutely beautiful. There is always some piece of beauty on the screen to take in. The film’s greatest triumph is the sense of scale. Nearly everything in the world of regular people, called Beans by the Borrowers, are a danger to them or has an alternate use. Nails not set flush are used as precarious steps, a pin becomes a makeshift sword and fishhooks with some line are used are repelling equipment. The interaction between the big people and the Borrowers are believable in a way that they could never be in live action. The film is worth seeing for the scale alone.
The sound is also mostly good. Wil Arnet as Pod does a bit of a Christian Bale Batman impression, but he is perfectly calm and unruffled at all times. Amy Poehler’s Homily is his opposite, always excited and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The other voices are mostly very good, if only because they don’t draw attention to themselves. Except for David Henrie as the sickly Shawn, who sounds completely lifeless. The music is mostly excellent as well. With the exception of the awful ending credits song.
The middle part of the film is almost painfully slow at times. Arrietty tries to blend the adventure of many of Miyazaki’s movies, like Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky, with the more slice of life styled film’s like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, but in the end doesn’t really satisfy as either one of them. There is not action for an adventure movie, nor enough reflection for magical drama. But what is there is eminently entertaining. From a narrative standpoint, The Secret World of Arrietty is somewhat empty, but it has heart and beauty and that makes up for a lot.