Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty, an animated adaptation of The Borrowers from Disney and Studio Ghibli, is a thoroughly enchanting tale of life, love and loss when you’re three inches tall.

In the quiet Japanese countryside a boy stands outside an overgrown cottage. Sudden movement in the garden catches his eye, and he gasps as a mouse-sized girl darts down a plant stalk. In that moment, time freezes as both the boy and the audience realize they’ve caught a glimpse of something magical: the opening scenes of Studio Ghibli’s charming animated masterpiece The Secret World of Arrietty.

An adaptation by Disney and Studio Ghibli of English author Mary Norton’s classic children’s book series The BorrowersThe Secret World of Arrietty is a film both uniquely Japanese and universally appealing.

Directed by longtime Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi from a screenplay by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki (Princess MononokePonyo), Arrietty was released two years ago in Japan, becoming the highest-grossing film of 2010. Opening in U.S. theaters Friday, the Disney English dub gives Americans the chance to fall as effortlessly in love with the captivating story as international audiences did.

This delightful 2D tale begins with the “human beans,” as Arrietty’s family calls them: Sickly 12-year-old Shawn (voiced by Disney star David Henrie) comes to stay with his Aunt Jessica and her housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) where, under strict orders to rest, the lonely boy confines himself to the garden. There he tries to spot Arrietty, the tiny girl he glimpsed upon his arrival at the cottage.

Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler of Wizards of Waverly Place) is also keeping an eye on Shawn. A Borrower, a tiny person no bigger than the bugs and mice that scurry past her home, Arrietty and her family live in Aunt Jessica’s basement, hidden from the occupants above. Fourteen and chaffing at her parents’ restrictions — they’re played by a hilariously neurotic Amy Poehler and a surprisingly gruff Will Arnett — Arrietty is impatient to join her father in borrowing, that is, sneaking into the human house to “borrow” food and other items. When death could come from a hungry bird, a bored cat, or from simply falling off a kitchen table, Arrietty’s parents are understandably strict with the young girl. Most dangerous of all, in their eyes, are the curious and often cruel human beans, and they impress on Arrietty the importance of remaining unseen: If a human bean should glimpse her, their entire family could be in jeopardy.

The human and Borrower worlds intersect as Arrietty and Shawn befriend each other, letting curiosity override fear. However, the two quickly find there are serious repercussions to breaking the Borrower code, and for the next 94 minutes the film takes audiences on a ride through two disparate but equally fantastic worlds, connected by sugar cubes, danger and a pair of lonely children.

As with previous Disney/Studio Ghibli releases, the voice dub cast is star-packed and surprisingly good. Poehler and Burnett provide the laughs as their characters panic, plot and yell their way through the movie. Poehler especially nails Arrietty’s passive-aggressive mother Homily, hilariously sighing and muttering loud prayers for safety every time her husband or daughter turns around. As odd as it is to cast Arnett in a non-comedic role his turn as the ultra-serious Pod is equally compelling. With a grunt and a sigh Arnett is able to convey Pod’s fears as effectively as his motor-mouth wife, and for fans there’s an extra fun thrill of seeing the married Poehler and Arnett playing husband and wife.

The real break out performance, however, is Mendler as Arrietty. The 19-year-old actress pulls off voicing the energetic and plucky Borrower with aplomb, displaying all the quintessential moxie, grit and optimism of a Studio Ghibli heroine. As the title character, Mendler really carries the film, providing the lion’s share of dialogue and exposition, and Arrietty’s pure determinism shines in Mendler’s every shout.

The only true weak spot of Arrietty is Henrie, the voice of Shawn. Another Wizards Of Waverly Place alum, Henrie is ill at ease with his role, stumbling and hesitating his way through the script. His delivery is disjointed as Henrie inexpertly tries to match his tone to his character’s facial expressions and comes up short. Luckily, Shawn is a largely silent character, allowing the far more eloquent and expressive Mendler to bring emotional resonance to their moments onscreen.

Yonebayashi’s directorial, Arrietty hits all the thematic check marks of a Ghibli/Miyazaki film. A fierce and spunky female protagonist? Check. Love blossoming between two unlikely friends? Check. Sobbing-inducing scenes evoking memories of childhood innocence and wonder? Check, check and check. But Yonebayashi’s movie avoids feeling like a retread of Ghibli’s earlier work, and unlike Ponyo, Miyazaki’s last film, Arrietty’s story and plot never falters. There’s a sense of completion; every part of the film is integral to moving the plot, and there’s a sense of purpose and closure that recent Ghibli releases lack.

That the 2D animation is breathtakingly gorgeous should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen a Ghibli film. But Arrietty is more than just lovely images, as Yonebayashi and his animators clearly enjoy establishing the tiny world of the Borrowers. The attention to detail and color in Arrietty’s house is incredible and expressive. Within their tiny home within a home, the Borrowers are safe, surrounded by their “borrowings” and jewel-toned belongings. Outside, however, the world is overwhelming as Yonebayashi forces the audience to view almost everything from a Borrower perspective. The effect is startling as watchers come to realize the magnificent outdoors is full of dangers, from crows roosting in the trees to the bugs inhabiting the basement. Yonebayashi also has great fun playing with speed and shifting point of view to show how the humans perceive the Borrowers (speedy and nimble) and how the Borrowers see humans (huge, loud and lumbering). Danger and wonder walk hand in hand in Arrietty’s world, where a pin is a sword, a dollhouse a mansion, and friendship between a human bean and a Borrower inconceivable — at least at first.

Arrietty is an absolutely mesmerizing animated film whose glossy style is matched by its heartwarming substance. A meditation on life and friendship, it’s a beautiful story sure to thrill audience members of all ages.

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