There’s no doubt that animated films wowed us in recent months. Films like The Adventures of Tintin and Rango were impressive in every way and to compare The Secret World of Arrietty is simply unfair because it’s the antithesis to those other films; yes, it’s animated too but where many animated films make sure that no stone goes unturned, giving us everything we could dream of, Arrietty still leaves plenty to the imagination. It’s the type of story that makes you ask what or who is living under your home. It makes you look at your light sockets differently or maybe that crack in your kitchen baseboard. And maybe, it makes you look at yourself in the mirror a little differently too.
Our story introduces us to the Clock family, four-inch tall species of humans called Borrowers who live underneath the floorboards. The protagonist is a young girl named Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), who is in a rush to grow up and explore the world that sits above hers. She doesn’t quite know what the outside is like, Arrietty only knows that others like herself are becoming fewer and far between. At least those are the stories she hears from her paranoid and protective mother, Homily (Amy Poehler). Her father, Pod (Will Arnett) on the other hand is the stable voice of patience, trust, and calm resolve. Pod understands that he can only contain his daughter’s curiosity so long and takes her on her very first borrowing day.
Borrowers take only what they need of beans, as in, human “beans.” They take from their surplus of goods, but only so much that the beans won’t notice it’s missing. On this day, the plan is to get some tissue paper and one sugar cube. Now, everything is magnified to borrowers. At four inches tall, to fall off a table is like leaping off the edge of a giant canyon. A cat is giant dinosaur-like beast. Humans, are well… like Godzilla.
They prepare as if they are going to go on a three-day expedition, when in reality they’ll only be gone for a few hours. Pod leads his daughter on a dangerous journey between the frameworks of the house. The head of nails, which hold the support beams together, act as steps and spools of thread work like a pulley system to navigate far away from rats and bugs that could eat them. Pod’s experience leads the way while the world as a miniature opens up to us through Arrietty’s eyes. A whole new world has opened up for her, and for us, a whole new way for us to look at our world.
Pod leads a flawless journey and teaches Arrietty tips to remember for her next trip. The day should end on a high note but someone in the house spots Arrietty. Shawn (David Henrie) is terminally ill and is a guest of the house to rest up for surgery. We don’t know what has plagued Shawn, but he has come to the Clocks with an open mind and has surrendered to destiny.
Knowing that humans cannot calm their interests, Pod believes that the best move is to begin scouting for a new home, which saddens Arrietty who did not want to disrupt her family’s harmony. She believes Shawn to be harmless, helpful even, but Pod cannot take that chance based on what he and Homily have experienced with big people in the past. In an act of bravery, Arrietty tries to right her wrong and tells Shawn that he must remain silent except he is not the one to be feared.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a candy sweet addition to the growingly scarce family films but there are also surprising themes of survival and mortality present. There are no action sequences that run five minutes long, neon bright colors or an encompassing ballet of sound. Does every animated story have to be though? The answer is an emphatic “no” and where the houses of Pixar and Dreamworks have all but re-established animation in this high-definition world, Studio Ghibli’s signature–so pronounced even in an ordinary story–remains a lonely cloud of magic that you never want to drift away.
The story is based on Mary Norton’s series of 1950’s novels, The Borrowers, and may remind adults of an ABC cartoon in the 1980’s called “The Littles.” Make no mistake though; this film has Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki written all over it. Arrietty’s dual conflicts with nature and “beans” are a dead giveaway. Animals are alive with personality–the insects too. Even the grisly reality of the food chain is vividly illustrated when the Clocks come across Spiller, another Borrower who lives in the woods. It’s in these details that Miyazaki wrote and first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi assembled a much-needed change of pace.
The voice cast is a sturdy bunch. Mendler’s Arrietty is a character that parents can be proud to show their daughters because she’s not only brave and valiant, but is also compassionate and considerate. The coarseness in Arnett’s voice fits Pod’s personality although there are no moments for him to fly off the handle. His subtle performance is a welcomed change from his shameful soliloquies from Arrested Development. Poehler contrasts her husband’s work with her typical spastic presentation we’ve come to know. And Carol Burnett gives housekeeper Hara that little bit of panache needed to show the more resentful side of humans.
If The Secret World of Arrietty doesn’t interest you, then perhaps the gluttony of computer-animated films have already done their damage. I still have faith that films like this can find their audience and that modern-day parents haven’t forgotten what it’s like to wonder what happens at the end of a story, to imagine beyond “the end” with their kids and not have to worry about what toy to buy to match their pajamas and bedsheets. This film is unlike so many that have come before it, and that’s just fine by me. Hopefully it is for you too.