Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the venerated animation company behind “Spirited Away” (2001) and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), have produced what will likely become yet another children’s classic with “The Secret World of Arrietty.”
Based on a series of fantasy novels written by Mary Norton (1952’s Carnegie Medal-winning “The Borrowers” and its four sequels), “The Secret World of Arrietty” centers on a family of tiny people known as “borrowers” who live unnoticed beneath the floorboards of a house.
Like its main characters, the Clock family, however, “The Secret World of Arrietty” takes only what it needs from Norton’s novels, relocating the story to the Japanese countryside and changing some of the main characters, including the human protagonist, here renamed Shawn (voiced by David Henrie).
After moving in with his aunt to receive proper attention before a major surgery, Shawn accidentally sees the 14-year-old borrower Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), eventually befriending her, and thus beginning a series of events that threatens the minuscule people’s entire existence.
Although there is nothing new about setting a story from the perspective of something small enough to fit in one’s hands — just a few examples of movies that do this include “The Rescuers” (1977), “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989) and “A Bug’s Life” (1998), not to mention three previous adaptations of “The Borrowers” — “Arrietty” is still captivating, in large part due to its remarkable attention to detail.
The borrowers’ pitchers pour huge globules of liquid, a pin becomes a sword and at one point, Arrietty idly plays with a potato bug in her lap that curls up to the size of a volleyball.
As the title would suggest, the movie is as much about the world of the borrowers as it is about anything else. The amount of care that has obviously been put into creating each detail of their miniaturized lives helps make “Arrietty” the kind of film that will stand up on repeat viewings, each time revealing small details that had been missed before.
Likewise, the film is animated with a certain level of patience often lacking in more recent movies, being tonally similar to Miyazaki’s 1988 film “My Neighbor Totoro.” By comparison, even Pixar stuff feels downright manic. Because of this, some younger children might have trouble staying quiet during a few of the film’s more somber sequences.
In addition to the gorgeous 2D animation, “Arrietty” features a very folk-influenced score courtesy of French musician CÉcile Corbel. Although somewhat of a departure for Studio Ghibli, whose films typically feature the orchestral scores of Joe Hisaishi, Corbel’s whimsical harp and piano songs give the film a very memorable feel.
Also worth mentioning is the voice acting. With the possible exception of Henrie’s, Shawn, who sometimes sounds a little stiff, the English dub is superb. In particular, relative newcomer Bridgit Mendler does an outstanding job as the beautiful heroine of the title, showing that celebrity voice actors are often unnecessary. Surprisingly cast as the semi-villainous housemaid Hara, iconic TV personality and comedienne Carol Burnett similarly shines in her role.
Although not without small flaws in the dialogue, which once or twice verges on the melodramatic, “Arrietty” is a remarkable film and a perfect example of why 2-D animation still matters. What’s more, like the best Disney movies from any generation, “The Secret World of Arrietty” manages to lend a sense of wonder to the minuscule and mundane of everyday life by showing the world from a different perspective.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” is rated G.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.