Even if, like me, you’re not an especially big fan of the Japanese anime style, don’t miss The Secret World of Arietty. We’re only in February, but I would have to have an outstanding year at the movies indeed for this 2-D animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli not to be somewhere on my 2012 top 10 list.
The film is a loose adaptation, and perhaps a deepening, of Mary Norton’s 1952 British children’s book The Borrowers, by Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind the 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away and other extraordinary Studio Ghibli works.
On Arietty,Miyazaki is credited as screenwriter and “planner”; the director, making his feature debut, is Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
The Borrowers of the original title are a race of insect-sized people who reside inside the walls or under the floorboards of human houses and survive by making sorties into the house proper to “borrow” tiny, unnoticeable amounts of whatever they need—a sugar cube, maybe, or a pin—from their human hosts, to whom they refer as “beans.”
Our adolescent heroine Arietty lives in bourgeois comfort with her taciturn father Pod and her hysteria-prone mother Homily beneath a closet in a lovely home in theTokyosuburbs.
Arietty (voiced, in theU.S.version, by Disney Channel star Bridgit Mendler) has a taste for adventure that outstrips her caution with regard to a cardinal rule of the Borrower lifestyle: Never being seen by humans.
Shawn (David Henrie, another Disney Channel favorite), a sensitive human boy who’s been sent to stay with relatives in the house while he waits to have heart surgery, becomes aware almost at once of Arietty existence, and thus of her family’s. The ensuing tale hinges on the guarded bond that develops between them.
The Secret World of Arietty doesn’t have the epic, preternatural grandeur of Spirited Away or some of the other Ghibli stunners, but I think that for this very reason it may please Western audiences even more, in some ways, than those films. The scale of the story makes Arietty less ambitious and more delicate, but also more direct and focused, and perhaps more conventionally charming (and also, for younger kids, less scary).
Still, Miyazaki and Yonebayashi fill the movie with dazzling touches—the enormity of the teardrops that form in Borrower eyes, or the tea drops that fill their miniscule cups, the insects that routinely cross Arietty’s path or the pillbug that rolls up when she idly picks it up, the way the sound of a rustling shirt is used to give a sense of Shawn’s colossal size—that leave us wide-eyed. Arietty is richly imagined, funny, high-spirited, exciting, suspenseful and touching, yet also blessedly quiet.
It’s pure fantasy, yet intensely in tune with the natural world. It’s deeply refreshing.
The Secret World of Arietty, Rated G, plays at Harkins Tempe Marketplace.