Honestly, I’m going to jump the proverbial gun right now and insist that I cannot possibly recommend The Secret World Of Arrietty enough as an antidote to all of the ADD-riddled shit that’s regularly shoveled into theaters under the guise of entertaining children. Look, this generation of kids might be spoiled beyond belief, but they’re definitely (most of them, anyway) not stupid. Give them a capable story full of wondrous adventure, and they’ll not only sit still and pay attention, but they won’t even miss the frenetic pop culture allusions and bouncing, gyrating rodents that often qualify as protagonists these days. Even better, give them some glorious Japanese animation that’s hand-drawn and not glaringly overworked through the nine circles of CGI hell. Finally, give these kids’ parents a film within which they too can lose themselves and one that will foster further discussion after the story ends. The Secret World of Arrietty is all that and more.
The story itself is adapted from the Mary Norton’s English children’s book, The Borrowers (never mind that dodgy John Goodman film from awhile back), and reset in Tokyo by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibl (Ponyo). Miyazaki co-writes the screenplay here too, and his influence is felt throughout the film. The U.S. version features a new voice cast as opposed to both the Japanese and U.K. versions, but the attraction here has very little to do with voice and everything to do with story and visuals, which are simultaneously sparse yet gloriously abundant in all their hand-drawn glory. The effect is both muted yet pleasing to the eye and must be witnessed to be believed.
Paced to facilitate wonder, The Secret World of Arrietty is an amazingly simple yet highly effective story built upon two main characters: a tiny, Thumbelina-sized girl and a chronically-ill young boy who arrives at his aunt’s cottage to gather some much needed rest. 14-year-old Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a four-inch tall girl who dwells within the floorboards of a human home. She lives with her stoic father, Pod (Will Arnett, actually reigning it in for once), and overly panicky mother Homily (Amy Poehler). Together, they are a family of Borrrowers who scavenge what they need (and only take what they need) from the house above them during nighttime voyages. Naturally, the Borrowers fear discovery above all else and only collect things that the humans won’t necessarily miss, such as a cube of sugar and a single piece of kleenex that will serve as tissue paper for months to come.
We witness Arrietty’s inductions to Borrowing as she stands tall throughout many challenges and collects a discarded straight pin to brandish as a sword towards any rats that might come her way. We feel her fear during her first raid as she follows Pod’s lead through the walls and sockets of the home to the massive kitchen and relish in her joy as she learns to repel down walls, countertops, and curtains. From Arrietty’s viewpoint, the lush garden — with scuttering ladybugs, shining dewdrops, winding vines, and gloriously sprouting flowers — is much like a jungle both for its wonders and dangers. Outdoors, terror can be found in an instant through the form of a cat or a crow, and indoors, the threat of discovery can meet its fruition through earthquake-like proportions.
When 12-year-old Shawn (David Henrie) comes to live in the (upper) house for the summer and immediately spots Arrietty in the garden, her parents immediately prepare for the worst and start thinking about relocating to a new home. Fortunately, Shawn only wishes to befriend Arrietty and help her family, but the housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), has also long suspected that something is amiss and wishes to rid the house of pests. Meanwhile, Arrietty’s parents worry that they are the last of their kind until they meet a slightly feral, woods-dwelling Borrower named Spiller (Moises Arias). Soon the situation builds to a fever pitch, which isn’t terribly scary for young viewers because it’s adeptly handled through the capable hands of its Japanese animators, who infuse their work with minimalistic details (wobbling reflections within characters’ eyes are often enough to convey both fear and sadness) to communicate emotion through the tiniest details. Sound design is also brilliant here and flawlessly demonstrates the differences in perception between large and small-sized characters as well, but when it truly matters, size means nothing at all within the themes of the film itself.
The story isn’t a complicated one, but the filmmakers mine it to surprising depths. Still, I can’t give too much away except to say that a wonderful, protective bond develops between brave, resourceful Arrietty and Shawn, who is sensitive and perceptive beyond his years as a result of forces that he cannot control but, nonetheless, he does not resent. Together, they inspire each other to great heights and become lasting influences upon each other beyond their time together. The Secret World of Arietty is a lovely and enchanting film and an exceedingly rare treasure to behold.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.