VOD Review: The Secret World of Arrietty
The Studio Ghibli interpretation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a delightful movie that played my emotions like a violin. Which is strange, because the tale just didn’t add up in my mind.
In advance of the month long celebration of Studio Ghibli films in theaters this August, I decided to take a gander at an earlier film that I had missed back in 2010. The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese take on the English children’s novel The Borrowers. Arrietty wasn’t directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but he did write the screenplay. The movie shows all the polish and dedication to detail that is the hallmark of a Miyazaki film. It is another one of Ghibli’s “childhood fantasy” films, with a delightful heroine doing awe-inspiring things. Arrietty also boasts one of the most effective villains I’ve seen in a while.
I won’t bury the lede: this story is fun. It’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets The Rescuers. The film pulls the emotions out of you almost effortlessly. You smile when it wants you to smile. You “oooh” and “ahh” when wonder is called for. And you’ll want to throw your drink at the screen whenever the villain does her villainy. For all the fun, however, the film has some inconsistencies that wouldn’t allow my brain to ignore them. How this film is so good, not only despite these issues, but sometimes because of them is just another example of Miyazaki magic. I have no scientific rationale for why I loved this movie, but I did.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Arrietty is the only daughter of the Clock family. They are “borrowers”: four inch tall humanoids that live in the places people never look. They scratch out a living borrowing the things that people won’t notice are gone. So actually they are benign thieves. If I took five dollars out of the pocket of a millionaire, he might not notice or have need of that five dollars. But make no mistake: I would be stealing, not borrowing.
Into Arrietty’s life comes Shawn (Alternately: Sho), a sickly young boy convalescing at his Aunt’s countryside villa. Shawn is a melancholy youth, seemingly resigned to a heart condition that has a high chance of being fatal. While he is subdued, he’s also bright and inquisitive, and stumbles upon Arrietty almost immediately upon arriving. While not an out and out discovery, Shawn is now fascinated that his Aunt’s stories of little people secretly living in the house might in fact be true.
Shawn’s suspicions are confirmed the next night, when Arrietty’s father Pod takes her on her first “borrowing”. The two are discovered when they attempt to lift some tissue paper from a room that was formerly unoccupied. Surprise! It just so happens to be Shawn’s new bedroom. The two escape, leaving behind the rest of the night’s take. Shawn tries to earn the Clock family’s trust, but his attempts at making contact raise the suspicions of Hara, the family maid. She schemes to capture the Clock family. Shawn and Arrietty must come together to save her family and help the Clocks relocate to a new home.
An Uncompromising Standard of Quality
If you’ve ever seen a Studio Ghibli animation, you probably have a good idea what to expect: artistic excellence. Much like early Disney and Don Bluth productions, the attention to detail is apparent and impressive. The backgrounds are lush paintings and the animation is fluid and detailed. The sense of a tiny family navigating a huge environment is awe inspiring. If you saw Honey I Shrunk the Kids, you can expect to have that level of immersion into this gigantic world.
Workmanlike Voice Work
The version of The Secret World of Arrietty I watched was the US dub. It was surprisingly just OK. Studio Ghibli films are usually just as good in English as they are in Japanese. Some (notably Mononoke-Hime) are even better in English, a rarity in Japanese/English dubbing. Matt Damon, Patrick Stewart, and Cate Blanchett have all lent their talents to Ghibli movies. Hell, Mark Hamill is doing voice work for The Castle in the Sky, and that’s 99% of the reason my butt will be in the theater for the August 27th dubbed showing.
So it’s dismaying that the voice acting here is just passable. Arrietty (played by Bridgit Mendler) is serviceable, and while she also provides the singing on the closing song, her voice-work rarely stands out. Shawn is plain bordering on monotone, and Pod is gruff and only seems to talk grudingly. Homily, Arrietty’s mother, needs a Vicodin (maybe Amy Poehler, who voiced her, does). The only true standout performance comes from our villain…
The Carol Burnett Show
…Hara, voiced by the one and only Carol Burnett. I have no clue why Hara works as such a despicable heel. Well, I do. The quality of the facial animations and Burnett’s voice work breathe life into a character that is pretty weak on paper. Hara doesn’t seem to have any true motivations. She doesn’t have a sympathetic back-story or a deep seated grudge against the household or the Clock family. She is just myopic avarice made flesh. And it works. I hated her with the passion of a thousand dying suns. And that was what I was supposed to do. I’ve haven’t seen a baddie that was just spite for the sake of it engender such enmity from me in a long time. She reminded me of the old silent film villains, the ones you just knew you were supposed to hiss and boo whenever they took the stage.
The Secret World of Arrietty has some issues baked into the story. The Clocks are for all intents and purposes pests (like mice). They don’t replace what they take, and they don’t provide any benefit to their co-habitants. As such, you should almost agree with Hara’s decision to call an exterminator to round them up. Shawn is kind but bland, and it detracts from but doesn’t wreck his friendship with Arrietty. The ending is bittersweet and almost a touch overwrought, but once again Ghibli manages to stick the landing.
It’s the presentation that elevates everything in Arrietty. The animation is superb, and it whisks you through this world that is plain to Shawn but magical when seen through Arrietty’s eyes. The contrasts in both Shawn and Arrietty’s world-views perfectly match up with this stylistic juxtaposition. While the voice work for Arrietty and Shawn are just passable, they are written well, and their cooperation is cute if not out and out charming.
Maybe the reason this film worked so well is that it gave me just about everything that Studio Ghibli has trained my brain to appreciate in their films. Animated excellence. A strong female lead. An awesome world. A fun soundtrack. It may be formulaic, but The Secret World of Arrietty pushed all the right buttons. If this is your first Miyazaki film, you might not come away from it as charmed as I was. But if you love the worlds “The Disney of Japan” creates, you’ll feel right at home in Arrietty’s secret world.