The Secret World of Arrietty | On Demand
Studio Ghibli’s latest offering boasts near-universal appeal.
While waiting for the archer heroine of Pixar’s Brave (opening June 22), you could do worse than spend some time with the miniature protagonist of Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty. Adapted from British author Mary Norton’s classic children’s novel The Borrowers, Secret World boasts a refreshing mix of influences: The visuals have all the color detail and woodcut-inspired linearity for which the Japanese animation factory is known. At the same time, the film, directed by Hayao Miyazaki protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is much more straightforward than the studio’s stateside releases over the last decade. For those of us who admired Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle but felt slightly baffled by their surreal, episodic narratives, Secret World’s accessibility is a balm.
Studio Ghibli will be the subject of a retrospective at the Siskel this summer. Don’t expect all of its movies to boast such elemental appeal. Arrietty is a “borrower,” a tiny person who lives with her family beneath the floorboards of an estate in the Japanese countryside. Experiencing the first pangs of teenage rebellion, she befriends an ailing human boy—already a no-no—who’s happy to share his home.
One of the thrilling things about Arrietty’s adventures is that they seem legitimately scaled to a child’s-eye view. It’s not just that she’s tiny and forced to scurry through ducts and grates. It’s that the film demonstrates an uncommon fascination with everyday objects, which animation is uniquely suited to defamiliarize. This is a world full of bugs, leaves and nighttime kitchen raids. Arrietty brandishes a stickpin as a sword. Rather than creating a universe anew—as even a Pixar film as grounded as Up did—The Secret World of Arrietty celebrates simple, tactile pleasures. Nothing is being sold; these are playthings, not products à la Toy Story.
What’s also striking here (as with other Studio Ghibli works) is the stillness of the frames. The scenery is intricately designed but has relatively little motion. It’s possible to sit back and admire certain shots simply as paintings, with sharp, hand-drawn figures who pop out against carefully sculpted, texture-rich backdrops. Action sequences emphasize suspense (will she be able to jimmy that window lock?) over spectacle. The movie’s stasis, both visual and narrative, might well be disorienting to a generation that’s come to think of animated films as unrelieved whooshing.
Like a Pixar product, the U.S. version of The Secret World of Arrietty comes equipped with celebrity vocal talent: Will Arnett and Amy Poehler take the roles of Arrietty’s worried parents; Carol Burnett is the mean-spirited housekeeper who hovers over the heroine’s newfound friend. Yet the highest compliment one might pay this casting is that none of the actors is instantly recognizable. Poehler and Arnett never turn their source material into a Saturday Night Live routine. What The Secret World of Arrietty concerns itself with, first and foremost, is telling a yarn. In an age when even children’s entertainment places a premium on fourth-wall breaking and pop-culture riffing, the appeal of an old-fashioned adventure tale should be no secret.
The Secret World of Arrietty arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 22.