Despite being directed by longtime Studio Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) has Hayao Miyazaki's signature all over it. That’s not to belittle first-time director Yonebayashi; he does a very good job helming the beloved studio's latest feature, but the film feels like an emulation of Miyazaki's hallmark style rather than the creative birth of a confident new auteur. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for anyone who conflates Miyazaki with the studio (Ghibli has produced several animated films not directed by the master himself, including Isao Takahata's remarkable Grave of the Fireflies (1988)). This is an exquisitely animated, charming and sometimes moving film that will appeal to both children and adults, and it comfortably falls into a median of quality when it comes to Studio Ghibli.
The story is based on Mary Norton's novel The Borrowers (1952), which has already been adapted into film a few times. It involves the Clocks, a family of "borrowers," four-inch tall people, whose existence subsisting off stray food and items gathered from the suburban house in which they live becomes jeopardized when the daughter, fourteen-year-old Arrietty, is discovered. Sho (Shawn in the dubbed American release), who sees her, is a quiet and lonely teenager with a heart condition and divorced absentee parents, staying at the house (which belongs to his aunt) to rest before a critical operation. Sho turns out to be a gentle soul who makes an instant connection with Arrietty. But when his relationship with Arrietty comes under the scrutiny of inexplicably sadistic housekeeper Hara, the young borrower and her parents Pod and Homily realize that they might have to move out and find a new home.
At times the fact that this is an adaptation seems to hold the movie back a bit, keeping it from the giddier realms of dream-like fantasia that Miyazaki's films boldly venture into. It seems more generic, more prepped and ready for international marketing as an approachable family movie. Even the cultural indicators that litter Ghibli films and place them firmly in the milieu of the Japanese imagination (while still being universally affecting) are toned down here, allowing for a more western feel to dominate, though the story is ostensibly set in a suburb of Tokyo. However, the film's attention to detail makes the world and culture of the borrowers feel vividly plausible instead of just cutesy. So while it doesn't reach the imaginative heights of classic Miyazaki, the film still retains enough of a sense of wonder in exploring a new world to carry his distinct tone.
Arrietty is at its best when it's painting a picture of the borrowers' unique lives, or lingering on Sho and Arrietty's friendship, or simply observing nature in the lovely, appreciative way that Studio Ghibli films do. Simple things like fallen leaves outlining the wake of a breeze, or fat, oversized raindrops clinging to Arrietty's clothes before being shaken off go a long way in enriching the atmosphere of transient beauty. There's a weight and reality to the world and its characters that simply doesn't show up in so many modern CG animated movies (not to tar all CGI with the same brush; Pixar's produced enough sublime visual art to make a cause for the latter).
There is a long scene near the beginning where we follow Pod and Arrietty on the teenage borrower's first scavenging trip into the depths of the human house. It's a gorgeously crafted sequence, genuinely tense and alive with creative attention to detail. I was utterly absorbed by the way Pod methodically cuts off strips of sticking tape to wrap around his feet and hands so that he can climb vertical surfaces, or how the sound design amplifies the mundane noises of a human house at night into ominous echoes, or how Arrietty's excitement and awe at seeing this new world makes the viewer see the mundanity of a kitchen or a bedroom in a new and wondrous light. It's a perfect crystallization of the way Miyazaki's best movies let adults shift back into the perceptions of a child by realizing a magical worldview in a thoughtful, mature way.
When it's in this patient, observational mode, Yonebayashi's debut reminds one of Miyazaki's masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro (1988). Both feature the themes of modernity encroaching on the wild and enchanted worldview engendered by close proximity to nature, and the solace that the natural realm provides to those struggling with human realities—the sickness of the largely absent mother in Totoro, the sickness of Sho and his sublimation of the pain of not having his parents around at such a crucial time, the aching loneliness of Arrietty who doesn't even know if there are any other borrowers left in the world, let alone others her age.
It's when the tale (adapted by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa) tries to manufacture conflict that the film falters, becoming contrived and silly. Hara is a ridiculously cartoonish villain, a poorly written monster with no apparent motive but to drive the Clocks out of the house and give the narrative a crisis to hinge around. This is disappointing, considering that Ghibli's offerings usually feature more interesting or subtle antagonists (which sometimes aren't even characters—in Totoro, the trials and sorrows of childhood are conflict enough). A considerable amount of time is devoted to Hara's efforts to capture the borrowers, whom she sees as thieving pests (an unbelievable stance for someone to take, having just discovered an entirely new species of human, though perhaps that's overthinking things). As a result, Sho's characterization and his time with Arrietty are given short shrift. Arrietty's mother Homily also comes off as a hysterical caricature of a housewife, quite unlike her daughter and level-headed husband.
Fortunately, Arrietty is the heart of the movie, and she's a little firebrand, lighting up the screen with her palpably strong presence even when the supporting characters gutter in the background. Her naive humanism and sweet curiosity make her a very sympathetic character, anchoring the story's emotional payoff in the final act, which is thankfully low-key, and more touching for it. Arrietty's strength and capability in the face of adversity also make her a worthy female role model for younger viewers to root for, which is always welcome, especially considering the unfortunate inclusion of her blubbering, fainting mother.
It's unfortunate that the only theatrical option for viewers in North America right now is the dubbed English language US release, because there's no doubt that films are better experienced in their original language. I understand the logic of releasing a family movie in English in North America and the UK, since it allows for younger children who might not take to subtitles to enjoy the movie. But there should have been a simultaneous release of the Japanese version on other screens, like the modern dual releases of 2D and 3D versions of movies. Speaking of which, Arrietty is thankfully free of any headache-inducing post-converted 3D. It's refreshing to see such astonishingly beautiful hand-drawn animation coexisting so well with more modern CGI elements, which are used sparingly but effectively.
One shouldn't go into The Secret World of Arrietty expecting another Spirited Away (2001), but it’s a more than adequate stand-in for the next great Miyazaki (or Ghibli) film. And taken on its own merits, it is visually and aurally stunning (with another stirring orchestral score, this time by French composer Cécile Corbel, to add to Ghibli's collection), quietly poignant, and almost certainly better than the next Shrek spinoff or bastardization of Dr. Seuss that's foisted on us by less discerning studios.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, Apex Magazine, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or his Flickr page.