THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan-U.S.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Gary Rydstrom, 2011-2012
The tranquil everyday beauty and transcendent charm of The Secret World of Arrietty — the latest feature cartoon import from Japan’s master animator Hayao Miyazaki (writer-director of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle) — is a balm to the restless spirit, a tonic for the troubled heart. As I watched this tender, rapt, whimsical tale of little people (only four inches high!) who live, hidden, beneath the floorboards of a Japanese country house — one of whom, a daring 14-year-old girl named Arrietty, befriends a sick human boy named Shawn awaiting a heart operation, who unintentionally opens up a world of danger — it became the kind of joyous experience, that art (and especially art intended primarily for children) often promises and seldom delivers. I felt refreshed and renewed after watching it. Maybe younger too.
The little people of the movie are called Borrowers: Arrietty Clock (voiced in this American version by Bridgit Mendler) and her parents Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Arnett’s real-life wife Amy Poehler). They are the brain-children of writer Mary Norton, who created them for her ‘50s classic “The Borrowers” — the source novel for this film — and for four other children’s books. Long a dream project (for decades, in fact) of Miyazaki’s, it has finally been realized here with all of the legendary resources of his wonder factory Studio Ghibli. But not under Miyazaki’s directorial hand.
Now 70, and perhaps looking ahead to the future of his studio, the genius of Spirited Away has limited himself this time to the chores of writer and executive producer, and handed the directorial reins over to his longtime key animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi, who has worked on a number of Miyazaki’s classics, from the grand fairytale Princess Mononoke on, knows the master’s style, his touch, and, perhaps his secret world. No one who knows and loves Miyazaki’s previous work should be disappointed here. It is a fine student’s meticulous tribute to his brilliant master — and perhaps a precursor of his own future brilliance as well.
Like most of Miyazaki’s work (at least what we know of it in the U.S.), The Secret World of Arrietty centers on a plucky young female protagonist — here, little Arrietty, who is adventurous and daring to a fault, and is about to be taught the art of “borrowing” by father Pod. Borrowing is what the little people must do to survive. (The Clock family fears there may be few of them left). Papa Pod, equipped with miniature mountain climbing equipment, including tiny ropes and grappling hooks, ventures out into the house at large when it’s safe, scales what are to him gigantic walls, stairs and dressers and steals (or “borrows”) the miniscule amounts of food (sugar cubes, mostly) and equipment they need. Now Arrietty must learn the same. Since she is a Miyazaki girl, we have littler doubt she’ll be an apt student.
But, in the meantime, Arrietty has been adventuring outside on her own, exploring the huge verdant domain of the country house’s back yard and woods, which have been rendered by the Ghibli artists in a radiant watercolor style of dense greens, grass and thick bushes dappled by the sunlight — a world where she eludes her nemesis, the fat and inquisitive house cat. Finally, she spotted by Shawn, the sick boy who is there to rest up before a heart operation.
Shawn (who was called Sho in the Japanese version) is entranced. Arrietty is amazed.. Their rapport blossoms into friendship (and, it’s hinted something like love, or at least puppy love), despite the fact that Pod and Homily have long warned their girl never to associate, or even be seen by, humans. Contact with them, even contact with the children, they believe, means uprooting, destruction, maybe death.
To Pod, Shawn’s sighting of Arrietty means they must move, find another house. And indeed, Shawn’s contact with Arrietty unintentionally opens up the Borrowers little world to the snoopy gaze of the house’s mean and slightly hysterical housekeeper, Haru (a.k.a. Hara), played lustily (and meanly) by Carol Burnett. Haru goes after them, tries to find their hiding place. Shawn tries to thwart her. The fat cat prowls. Danger gathers itself to pounce. Must the Borrowers, and Arrietty, leave?
That’s the plot — and we can see why the story would appeal so to children, for whom their home and its environs are a little world unto themselves, the world they love. Shawn, in a way — symbolically of course — is an artist himself, and the little people he finds and meets are the world-within-a-world every artist, no matter how small, creates.
I wondered about one element of Arrietty‘s secret world, though not too hard. Who, I pondered, were the craftsmen who made all the wonderful furniture and clothes and hand-crafted-looking household items that graced the Clocks’ house? Did these objects come from dollhouses? Are Pod and Homily master artisans as well as brilliant borrowers? As I said, I thought about it, but not much. Maybe I just missed something. So instead, I looked, enjoyed, reveled in what the artists who created this world had wrought for us.
This hearteningly spry and lovely little movie, so full of compassion, imagination and humanity, attests once more to the beauties of Miyazaki’s art and the powers of his studio. And it’s a tribute to our homegrown genius animators from Disney and Pixar that they’ve devoted so much care and love and skill to bringing Miyazaki’s work here, to translating it and preparing it for American audiences — in this case, making both an American dubbed version written by Karey Kirkpatrick, acted by the ensemble above and directed by Gary Rydstrom, and another dubbed version for British audiences, with the marvelous sounding cast of Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty, Mark Strong as Pod and Geraldine McEwan as Haru.
I hope they put both versions, and the Japanese original as well, eventually on some lushly deluxe “collector’s edition” DVD. The link between the animators of Pixar/Disney and of Studio Ghibli, is reminiscent of the late-career bond that Francis Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg gorged with another Japanese “sensei” or master, Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha and Dreams: a tribute from the great filmmakers of one culture to their compatriots in another.
Secret World is a movie worth the bond and the bridge. Miyazaki, Yonebayashi and the Ghibli team concentrate on their specialty here: creating those beautiful, richly colored and crafted images, and making reality out of fantasy. The hauntingly sweet backgrounds and characters of the film have a painterly look, a handmade quality that gives them real lovableness, the perfection and warmth of a fine brushstroke. The Borrowers and their tiny world has been imagined and rendered with such detail that one wants to reach out and touch it, take it home, and take home Arrietty and her family as well. After all, we aren’t bad humans. We wouldn’t, unthinkingly or not, hurt these tiny people or upset them or despoil their little world.
Or would we? Humans, despite the best and more heroic efforts of a few of us, really don’t have such a good overall record co-existing with our planet’s flora and fauna, with the splendid ensemble of animals, birds, fish and wildlife with whom we share our world. All too many species around us have disappeared or had their numbers severely reduced under our stewardship — and that includes some of the more vulnerable of us humans as well. Could we guarantee the safety and comfort of little vulnerable people like these? Maybe they’d be lucky and be protected, by some stronger, older version of Shawn. At best, they’d probably be exploited. At worst….
Well, let’s not think about all that. The little people, the borrowers, of The Secret World of Arrietty will be safe enough, for a while. They may be tiny beings in a world of giants, but they live in a world of imagination rather than the harsher climes of reality. But because they are enduring art rather than mortal flesh, they’ll exist on screens long after we who watxh them now. Their artist mother, Mary Norton and their artist fathers, Hayao Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have seen to that, So let’s be appreciative as we watch these tiny borrowers. Let’s enjoy these little creatures of the mind and heart and soul. How wrong, how terrible, if we drove them all away.