THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan-U.S.: Hayao Miyazaki/Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Gary Rydstrom, 2011-2012
The everyday beauty and transcendent charm of The Secret World of Arrietty — the latest feature cartoon import from Japan’s master animator-writer-director Hayao Miyazaki ) — 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 — 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, and tranquil. 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 and the 1997 British film.. 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, where Miyazaki and his team made Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. But not under Miyazaki’s directorial hand.
Now 70, the genius of Castle in the Sky 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 Princess Mononoke on, knows the master’s style, his touch, and, the byways of his own secret world. No one who 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 Yonebayashi’s own future brilliance.
Like most of Miyazaki’s work, The Secret World of Arrietty centers on a plucky young female protagonist — here, little Arrietty, who is adventurous and daring, and is about to be taught the art of “borrowing” — what the little people must do to survive — by her father. 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 a very apt student.
But in the meantime, Arrietty has been adventuring outside on her own, exploring the verdant domain of the country house’s big back yard and woods, rendered by the Ghibli artists in a radiant watercolor style of dense greens, grass and thick bushes dappled by sunlight — a world where she eludes her nemesis, the fat and inquisitive house cat. Finally, Arrietty is spotted by Shawn, the sick boy.
Shawn (called Sho in the Japanese version) is entranced. Arrietty is amazed.. Their rapport blossoms into friendship (and, it’s hinted something like 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 with human children, they believe, means uprooting, destruction, maybe death.
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), voiced 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. Who, I pondered, were the craftsmen who made all the wonderful furniture and clothes and hand-crafted-household items that graced the Clocks’ house? Did these objects come from dollhouses? Are Pod and Homily master furniture-makers as well as brilliant scavengers? Maybe I just missed something.
This 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 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 cast of Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty, Mark Strong as Pod and Geraldine McEwan as Haru.
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 forged 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 richly colored and crafted images, making a new 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 artist’s brushstroke unerringly executed. The Borrowers and their tiny world have been imagined and rendered with such life and detail that one wants to reach out and touch it, take it home, and take home Arrietty and her famil. 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?
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, as long as Miyazaki is in charge. They may be tiny beings in a world of giants, but they live in a world of artistry and imagination rather than in the harsher climes of reality. Because they are enduring art rather than mortal flesh, they’ll exist on screens long after we who watch them now. Their writer mother, Mary Norton and their artist fathers, Hayao Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have seen to that, So let’s be appreciative. Let’s enjoy these little creatures of the mind and heart and soul. How wrong, how terrible it would be, if we drove them all away.