Studio Ghibli (like its American cousin/rival, Pixar Studios) has such a flawless reputation for producing beautiful, magical, creative, and original masterpieces of feature animation that audiences are predisposed to liking any new movie that they produce. The Secret World of Arrietty is the latest from these Japanese animation masters and for me, while it is lovely enough, it doesn’t reach the same degree of imagination that classics such as Totoro, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or even the recent addition, Ponyo, have done. Based on The Borrowers, a classic kids novel by Mary Norton, the story features Arrietty, one of the Borrowers — a group of miniature people living hidden amongst normal people — and Shawn, a normal young boy with a heart condition who is convalescing at his aunt’s home in the country. The Borrowers try hard not to be noticed by humans (who they call “beans”), but when Shawn spots Arrietty in the garden, he tries to befriend and help her. Arrietty’s parents are more concerned about the situation and begin to plan their departure, since they don’t think it’s safe once they have been seen by the beans. This might prove true once the housekeeper Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett) starts to suspect that there may be “little people” in the house and wants to get rid of them.
One of the best aspects of Studio Ghibli productions are the visuals. Despite the exodus of North American studios away from two-dimensional, traditional, cel animation, Studio Ghibli continues to show why it still has so much potential as an art form. They create amazing creatures and worlds using traditional animation techniques, and even though Arrietty didn’t have as many of those elements to it, everything from the painted garden backdrops to the flow of the characters’ clothing, everything looked very nice. Also, the animators and art directors have paid a lot of attention to the small details (which is extra important in a movie about little people) such as the way tea pours out of their tiny tea pots. It comes out like thick syrupy blobs rather than a flowing stream (probably because of the relatively higher degree of surface tension). These touches really add to the realism of the animation for the purposes of storytelling. Unfortunately, that’s where the film seems to fall a little blah. Especially given the title of the movie (which, I guess, is slightly different from the original Japanese) which mentions a “secret world”, there is not much time spent looking at the world of the Borrowers. I really enjoyed the scenes when Arrietty’s father takes her on her first quest — to get a sugar cube from the kitchen. We get to see all kinds of clever mechanisms put in place by the Borrowers to navigate through the house, get up and down from tables, travel behind walls, and carry their cargo. To people of their small size (we’re talking a few inches tall), getting something from across the room is a bit of an expedition. Unfortunately there is not much more made of the “world” of the Borrowers after that as the plot of the story kicks in.
The other common Studio Ghibli element that is missing from this movie are all the imaginative creatures/characters. There are always odd, wonderful, magical beings found in these movies, but in Arrietty, we have the Borrowers themselves (who apart from their size, are just like regular humans), and that’s pretty much it. Later in the movie we are introduced to Spiller, a more tribal-looking Borrower who may come from somewhere beyond the house, but he seems little more than a plot device and besides his clothing and apparent lack of advanced language skills really doesn’t distinguish himself much from the others. So for a Studio Ghibli movie, this one was surprisingly mundane.
In addition to Burnett, the other voices were also pretty well performed. Real-life husband and wife, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler voice Arrietty’s parents, and the girl herself is performed by relative unknown Bridgit Mendler (who also sings the end-credit song). Mendler does a good job with a straight-forward character, but I think I might have preferred the actor from the UK version (Saoirse Ronan) instead.
All in all, it’s difficult to go wrong with a Studio Ghibli movie, but if you are not already a fan, I wouldn’t recommend this one as a primer. It’s a simple kids story, with a touch of charm, a dash of romance, but probably a bit too slow-paced for most kids these days (especially North American kids). The other movies from this studio would be a lot more exotic, and maybe more difficult to fully understand, but also a lot more inventive and magical (3.5 out of 5).