The Secret World Of Arrietty
The latest triumph from legendary Japanese animators Studio Ghibli has finally made its way to American shores. "The Secret World of Arrietty," featuring a brand new English-language dub, is a long-awaited breath of fresh air sure to please both longtime fans and anyone tired of Disney’s formulaic animated films.
Constructing an adaptation of Mary Norton’s adored "The Borrowers," director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has employed all the traits that have made Studio Ghibli films ("My Neighbor Totoro," "Spirited Away") favorites the world over: a wondrous view of nature and the world around us, absolutely luscious and overwhelmingly colorful animation, and a truly innocent worldview that is sure to warm even the coldest of hearts.
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a ’borrower’, a 4-inch human being who survives on the unnoticed objects she and her parents (voiced in the US dub by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) steal from the full-sized people whose home they inhabit. Arrietty, on her first adventure alone to ’borrow’ something ("steal" may not be the right term for the things they take, since they are often as miniscule and worthless as a cube of sugar) encounters Shawn, a sickly young boy recently moved into the home. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with the boy, a connection that threatens her home (borrowers are never to stay where they have been noticed), her family (who are now in danger, thanks to their appearance) and her life itself.
The fanciful plot allows the Ghibli animators to truly show off their meticulous design of the home and the area surrounding it; their eye for minute detail is as expressive here as it has been in any of their previous films. And the ’small-scale’ (please excuse the pun) nature of the subject allows them to indulge their well-known obsession with compositions of nature and animals to a level that we have never seen before - they’re able to turn bugs into life-sized enemies, and house cats are transformed into enormous monsters who tower over the titular borrower as if it were Godzilla.
While "Arrietty" lacks some of the lighthearted whimsy that made earlier works like "Totoro" so timeless (it reaches intensely emotional levels at times, and puts its characters in mortal peril more than once) it certainly displays the Ghibli animator’s world-renown talents throughout.
And Disney’s English dub, for once, doesn’t negate any of the films emotional impact. Casting real life couple Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") and Amy Poehler ("Saturday Night Live") as Arrietty’s parents was a true stroke of brilliance. Not only does Arnett, a brilliant comic actor, get to show off a slightly more masculine tone then we’re used to from him; but Poehler also reaches dramatic heights we’ve never seen (or rather, heard) from her - her characters ’kidnapping’ provides the crux of the films plot. And Mendler fills the role of Arrietty perfectly; she lays both a layer of wonder and worry into every line reading, her exuberant expressions always backing up the overtly adventurous nature of the character.
And of course, I have to stop and exclaim just how breathtaking hand-drawn animation still is. The Ghibli team has created a film with colors so expansive and pleasing-to-the-eye that the films borders on the hallucinogenic; the fantastical plot only aided by drawings so expressive that they occasionally lapse into the surreal (the aforementioned cat, at some points a friend and at others a terrifying enemy, is perhaps the best use of this style - her eyes rendered as glowing bulbs that are often the only thing we can see through the darkness). In a period where animation by definition seems to mean ’digitally-animated, 3-D, and action-focused’ - whether it’s coming from Disney’s in-house team, Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox, or elsewhere - it’s truly touching to see a film as beautiful as "Arrietty", and to know it was done by hand, not by a computer.
"Arrietty" is unlikely to enter the canon of Ghibli classics next to "Totoro" or "Howl’s Moving Castle," two classics directed by the godfather of the studio, Hayao Miyazaki. However, with his first feature as director, Yonebayashi has crafted a work of animation that can stand proudly next to those classics on the shelf - perhaps not equal in emotional weight (nothing here is half as wrenching as the conclusions of the aforementioned films) but certainly in visual beauty. The story of Arrietty may not tug on your heartstrings the same way those films did, but the sheer precision of the ’miniature’ world is a unique vision that demands to be seen. Ghibli fans who have waited years for this latest work to hit our shores will find little to be disappointed with in the "Secret World."