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Unraveling ‘Arrietty’s’ secret world

By Juliette Martin

Section: Arts, Top Stories

March 2, 2012

“The Secret World of Arrietty” first premiered in Japan, its home country, in 2010 and arrived in the United States last week. It has received glowing reviews from critics and viewers alike after receiving the equivalent of an Academy Award in Japan for “Animation of the Year.” “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which is the latest film out of Studio Ghibli (best known in the United States for producing Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”), is an adaptation of a fairy tale first published in 1952 by Mary Norton called “The Borrowers.” “Arrietty” presents an impressive directorial debut for Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has worked for years in Ghibli’s animation department.

The film tells the story of the Clock family, doll-sized people living in the shadows of a regular-sized house, and the conflict that unravels as a friendship between the family’s daughter, Arrietty (voiced in the U.S. version by Bridgit Mendler), befriends the normal-sized Shawn (David Henrie), putting her family at risk as they are discovered by a villainous housekeeper.
In the classic fashion of many Studio Ghibli movies, “The Secret World of Arrietty” portrays the beauty as well as the challenges of youthful friendship and affection. Both children are notably lonely, as Arrietty has only her parents and no companions her own age, and as Shawn is frighteningly ill. The friendship is portrayed with sweetness and poignancy as the two children slowly come to understand each other. I am consistently impressed with Ghibli’s ability to portray the depths of friendship and love without delving into any kind of romantic set-up.

Though “The Secret World of Arrietty” is most openly marketed as a children’s movie, it does have some serious elements to be appreciated by an audience of all ages (a fact shared by a great many Ghibli movies), most notably Shawn’s struggle with loneliness and acceptance in the face of a serious illness that threatens his life and Arrietty’s fear that her family may be the last of their kind. This loans a sense of emotional weight to the story as a whole, as our childish protagonists struggle with real, adult problems and fears. It honors the depth of emotion in children in ways that reverberates in the hearts of children and adults alike.

The animation of the film is nearly flawless, with characters moving in front of gorgeous, painting-style scenery. Though certain scenes (in particular the views inside a decadent dollhouse) appear rather gaudy, overall the imagery is quite stunning. The palette is largely soft and colorful, in contrast to some of the studio’s older, darker movies such as “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Princess Mononoke.” The animation pays incredible attention to detail, very carefully portraying the way tiny Arrietty views the world. A viewer can see the surface tension on the outsides of water droplets, which tend to be the size of Arrietty’s head, and each individual blade of grass in the yard she explores.

The film is highly reminiscent, both in style and subject matter, to Ghibli’s “My Neighbor Totoro” in its emphasis of the way children deal with their problems, and to “Kiki’s Delivery Service” in the way it portrays a young woman’s desire for independence and coming of age. The return to more layered issues is certainly welcome, as the preceding movie “Ponyo” was notably lacking in the dark themes that long-time Studio Ghibli fans have come to expect even in their children’s movies.

Despite the movie’s many strengths in theme, plot, characterization and visuals, there is one distinct weakness in the portrayal of the film’s villain, Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett), the housekeeper of the home in which Arrietty’s family has taken refuge. Upon confirming the existence of the Clock family, Hara sets out on a quest to have them exterminated. Her motives, however, are notably unclear. One gets the sense that perhaps she has been complaining about these mysterious miniature people for some time. Perhaps she has been called mad for it and thus is eager to prove her sanity, or perhaps she just wants to prove her sanity to herself. These reasons are never quite filled out, however, making the character a rather flat villain who simplifies an otherwise complicated plot. This may be due to challenges with translating the character’s dialogue from the original Japanese, but in the case of the English-language film, there are significant problems in characterization for this villain.
Even with this flaw, for those of us who grew up on the earlier films of Studio Ghibli as they first entered the United States, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a welcome return to childhood. Like other Ghibli movies based on earlier books (most notably including “Howl’s Moving Castle”), it takes the concept of the source material and makes it very distinctly Ghibli’s own, bringing a unique style and spin. The film also deserves credit in the studio’s body of work as a whole for portraying strong female heroines, a pattern to which Arrietty is no exception.

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