The Secret World of Arrietty (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, G)

 

film arietty_smThat is to say The Secret World of Arrietty is a brilliant film, surely one of the year’s best.

 

 

film arietty_lg

It seems with every successive U.S. release of a Studio Ghibli picture, Disney makes a bigger deal about its release; if they were smart, they would have given them all big pushes from the outset (though, in fairness, if American audiences were smart they’d go see these films in greater numbers than they historically have). This began in 1999 with the Miramax release of Princess Mononoke (which was the first Disney-affiliated Ghibli release; the first theatrical release of a Ghibli film in the United States was actually Troma’s My Neighbor Totoro in 1993), and elevated with 2002’s Spirited Away, 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and 2009’s Ponyo. Now we have The Secret World of Arrietty, which appears to be getting the biggest push yet. This seems odd, given that of the five abovementioned films, Arrietty is the only one not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a genius of animation whose only rival is Walt Disney himself (and much as I love Disney, my vote goes to Miyazaki on this one). Even so, Arrietty is co-written by Miyazaki, and everything that comes out of Studio Ghibli bears his mark whether he acted as the director or not.

That is to say The Secret World of Arrietty is a brilliant film, surely one of the year’s best. Its proper director is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, here making his directorial debut despite being an employee of Ghibli for well over a decade. Perhaps Arrietty is getting the push that it is because it feels less Japanese than the aforementioned Miyazaki films. It’s based on the classic children’s novel The Borrowers, which is originally a British text, and the Ghibli style of character design has long been western to the point that Disney can hide the film’s Japanese setting in trailers and such.

The appeal of The Borrowers as a novel worthy of the Ghibli treatment makes sense, as it features the Miyazaki-signature young, headstrong girl as the lead, here of course named Arrietty (voiced by Disney star Bridget Mendler). If you’re not familiar with the story of The Borrowers, the short version is that Arrietty and her mom (voiced by Amy Poehler) and dad (Will Arnett, who is of course married to Poehler in real life) live under the floorboards of a house; they are maybe the size of your pinkie finger. They live off of what they can “borrow” (perhaps more like steal) from the owners of the house, but they only take what they need and go to great pains to never be detected by the humans (here called “beans,” as in “human beans”). Of course, the conflict of the movie arises when the humans become suspicious that there are borrowers living in their house. They’ve heard stories of their existence for years, and while some are excited about the prospect of encountering them, others view them as pests that need to be exterminated.

The film is as magical and adventure-filled as one has long come to expect of a Ghibli film, and by and large, the voice work is very well done, particularly Arnett as Pod, Arrietty’s father. Arnett is no stranger to voiceover work in animation (see Ratatouille or Despicable Me for other examples), but here he’s playing the strong, silent type and really excels at it with his usual guttural gruntiness. As a rule, the overall sound design is actually stronger than one might expect; you’ll be wanting to stay in the film’s thunderstorm-y ambience for days.

This is not to say that there aren’t a few problems here and there. The ending feels unusually abrupt and there are a couple of truly heinous English-language songs (the worst being over the end credits), but they’re all easy enough to ignore in favor of the bigger picture, which is the most fun I’ve had at the movie theater in quite some time. One word of advice, though: While I usually like watching kids’ movies with an audience full of children, you’re probably going to want to get lost in Arrietty’s world, and a roomful of screeching kids will inhibit your ability to do that, so perhaps raid the latest showing in the evening at your local theater, preferably on a school night. | Pete Timmermann

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