Perhaps the greatest achievement of nearly any movie coming from Studio Ghibli is that, despite resting their milieu in the magical and the whimsical and the downright gonzo, the emotions and truths they express could not be grounded more firmly in the real world. The Japanese animation powerhouse responsible for masterpieces like Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies has never been one to shy away from blending bitter dissonance with heart-warming sentiment, and the result is nearly without exception a final work as singular and as electrifying an exercise in storytelling as it is in sheer expertise with animation.
That trademark expertise of all things animated is as prevalent as ever with Ghibli’s latest feature, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty. The landscapes are painted with more colors than I previously believed had existed and each character is drawn with their own distinctive personalities while still maintaining an aesthetic that is consistent with the most definitive of Ghibli’s works. But Arrietty is also a rarity in that – thematically, at least – feels as if it is part of an entirely different animation studio’s canon, like the works of Disney animation studios or the Pixar masterpieces. Given my affection for Disney and Pixar, such comparison should come off as terribly complementary. In that mindset, admittedly, there is much to love about Arrietty. But considering the studio’s fearless embracement of the bizarre and fantastical in the past, this latest effort from Ghibli comes off as a fantasy of almost vanilla proportions. It also feels like Ghibli’s most naked effort to appeal to Western audiences (and by association, their wallets).
While I am unfamiliar with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, the children’s book off of which Arrietty is based, I understand they are conceptually quite similar. Arrietty introduces us to a sickly boy named Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), who moves in to his aunt’s remote country home to rest in preparation for some serious heart surgery. Almost immediately, Shawn catches a fleeting glimpse of an extraordinarily small girl; so small in fact, that she could fit comfortably in the boy’s hand. That miniature girl, we learn, is the eponymous Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), who happens to live happily with her father Pod (Will Arnett) and her mother Homily (Amy Poehler) underneath the floorboards of the house. Every so often, Pod will venture inside the house to “borrow” goods throughout the house like sugar, tissues and various other household supplies that no “human bean,” as they say, would ever miss should they disappear.
The same day Shawn arrives, Arrietty primes herself for to follow Pod on her first-ever “Borrowing.” Beside herself with anticipation, Arrietty’s enthusiasm is quickly dashed when, while attempting to borrow a tissue, she is caught yet again by Shawn. Though Shawn attempts to be friendly toward her, the terror-stricken Arrietty scurries off with her father. Ever-curious about this strange little creature he has found, Shawn continues to pry, and looks to befriend Arrietty and to help her family “borrow” a little more easily. Wisely knowing that the young bean’s curiosity will only precipitate in further disruptions to the small family’s existence, Pod and Homily prepare to uproot their family life and to find a new home.
Following that unintended encounter, much of Arrietty tracks the developing relationship between the young bean and the young borrower. As Pod and Homily continue to ruminate over their decision to leave, Arrietty slowly begins to acquiesce to Shawn’s curiosity, and an unlikely friendship is forged. It’s easy to buy into the sense of enchantment and discovery Shawn experiences upon meeting Arietty. This is in part because Yonebayashi does so wonderful a job of building a universe we want to know more about, that we share the young bean’s feelings of wonderment. Day-to-day tasks like acquiring food or warding off bugs and wildlife are given a whole new sense of exotic meaning by pure virtue of their being accomplished by people who can fit in our hands.
I also love how the Golden Rule for the Borrowers – “borrow only what you need, and only what would go unnoticed” – informs the logic of Arrietty’s family life. Even though their daily routine is fairly conventional – the father wins the bread, the mother watches the home, the family reconvenes for meals each day – it is consistently built around the conveniences of their surroundings (their home is built around a tiny pipe leak, their primary water source). That so much of this is shown rather than told speaks to the thought that went in to building Arrietty’s story.
Yet for all the charm and impermeable logic this Secret World exhudes, little about it truly beguiles, at least not in the way that other Ghibli universes have beguiled me. If I have paid less regard to the characters written for this film, it’s for good reason. Save for Arrietty herself, no other characters are ever given a real chance to transcend their tried-and-true archetypes. We don’t ever care too greatly for Shawn, as he functions primarily as a vehicle transporting us between our human world and Arrietty’s. As Arrietty’s parents, Pod is almost too benevolent a father figure (think Tom Hanks’ Extremely Loud character with a Gob Bluth grumble), and the ever-worried Homily resorts too often to broad, slapstick hysterics to be taken seriously either as a competent adult or as comic relief.
The most unusual move in this story, especially when considering Arrietty as a Ghibli work, is the choice to employ a clear-cut antagonist to raise the plot’s stakes. In the case of Arrietty, it’s a nosy housekeeper (Carol Burnett) obsessed with finding the oft-discussed “little people” Shawn’s been interacting with. Her purpose in the story seems only to remove any doubts that Pod’s decision to uproot Arrietty from her home is perhaps the right decision. It’s an unnecessary addition, and it ultimately distracts from what makes the story work.
So much of what makes The Secret World of Arrietty operate – the simplistic characterizations, the sense of moral clarity – is the kind of storytelling mechanics that Studio Ghibli at its best wouldn’t be caught dead using. While it may be a little unfair to hold one movie’s creative standards to the studio that spawned it, I’m nonetheless surprised that this film was written by Hayao Miyazaki, the same person whose most transporting works either added complexity to these tired concepts (Spirited Away) or saw no need whatsoever to introduce them (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo). Arrietty may still be a thoroughly imaginative and deeply enjoyable fantasy, but its most unfortunate shortcomings – especially compared to what we’ve come to expect – render it almost disappointingly normal.
Bottom Line: The Secret World of Arrietty may be a lesser effort from Studio Ghibli, but that doesn’t mean it won’t charm your socks off.