The Secret World of Arrietty

starring Bridgit Mendler, Will Arnett, and Amy Poehler
written by Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Rated G.

14-year old Arrietty (Mendler) is a smart, adventurous girl who stands just 4 inches tall and lives under the floorboards of a large country house with her equally diminutive parents, Pod (Arnett) and Homily (Poehler). These “Borrowers,” as they call themselves, subsist from items that will not be missed by the humans, and they may be the last of their kind. This concern couldn’t be further from Arrietty’s mind on the exciting occasion of her first borrowing expedition, but everything changes when she is seen by a young boy who has just moved into the house.

I spent almost all of Arrietty‘s 94 minutes with a smile on my face. I don’t absolutely love every Studio Ghibli film, but when they hit the mark, there truly is no more enjoyable visit to the theater (or, more often, 3 or 4 visits). The movie rolls past in waves of cathartic wonder and lush visuals and delightful music. This may be Ghibli’s best film since Spirited Away in 2001. The story may feel slight, particularly by comparison with their more epic fantasy outings in the uneven Tales from Earthsea (2006) and the brilliant Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Still, the plot recognizably follows the major arc of Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers on which it is based, and not all stories shake the world.

The best thing about the film is its extremely likable title character, whose energetic curiosity drives events forward, but also provides opportunities to slow down and take in the richly-imagined surroundings. Arrietty is compassionate, ingenious, empathetic, spirited, and a lot of other complimentary adjectives that make her an ideal companion for adventure and exploration. It is obvious from the moment she is introduced, laughing good-humoredly over a narrow escape from the cat, that this is a character we will enjoy spending the rest of the movie with. Her cheerful liveliness and her natural awe in the presence of the mundane accouterments of our everyday lives makes her the perfect audience surrogate, reinvesting our surroundings with the novelty of seeing them as if for the first time.

It helps that everything in this movie looks gorgeous. One of the studio’s greatest animation strengths is in its bright, color-filled rendering of the natural world, whether it be a flower-filled meadow, an overgrown backyard, or an ivy-covered wall. Arrietty’s size gives us plenty of chances to get up-close and personal with the flowers, grass, and leaves that the film reproduces so beautifully. Even better, though, are the startling landscapes indoors; the vast reaches of a cavernous kitchen, the intricacies of an especially ornate dollhouse, and the labyrinthine twists and turns between the walls and under the floors. There is literally something new and exciting to see around every corner.

The music for the film was done by French singer Cécile Corbel, who joined the project after she sent a fan letter to Studio Ghibli along with one of her albums. There is a distinctly Celtic flavor to her music, heavy on the harp (Corbel’s instrument), that coincides spectacularly with the rural greenery and rustic flavor of the movie. The music, which frequently has lyrics (Corbel performed the main song for the film herself in Japanese, English, French, German, and Italian), might seem intrusive at times, but it generally reinforces rather than overwhelms. If the animation were not so good, it might be tempting to close your eyes and simply listen.

The greatest challenge in telling this story, I imagine, would be keeping The Secret World of Arrietty grounded in some kind of emotional reality, and not allowing it to float the audience airily away to a fairy world of near-paradisal perfection. As in many of his other films, Miyazaki deftly weights the happy innocence of childhood with the sadness of mortality and bittersweet joys and sorrows of new friendships that are over all too briefly. This tempers the film’s lightness and brings meaning to the characters’ journey. Arrietty’s story continues, without dialogue, into the credits, inviting the audience to sit quietly and reflect on the film (at least until a Disney pop song, unique to the American release, cuts in). Almost the entire theater stayed through the credits at the weekend showing I attended, which is virtually unprecedented in my experience.

It’s a shame that so few American films feature great female characters like this, or use the freedom of animation to do something more than make cartoon animals reference pop culture and crack wise. It’s an even greater shame that so few of the films the rest of the world is making find their way into a wide theatrical release here, and that it takes so long for those that do to arrive (Arrietty was released in Japan over 18 months ago). That only makes this movie all the more a rare treat. Go see The Secret World of Arrietty while it’s in theaters; first, because it’s important that we support movies like this when we can. But even more significantly, if you don’t go, you’ll be missing out.

~ by Jared on February 20, 2012.

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