A woeful cloud of melancholy hangs over Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic children’s book The Borrowers, yet thanks to the combined mastery of director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki, something truly magical happens when the film’s luminous messages of bravery and perseverance penetrate that foreboding thunderhead. Filtered through that unique prism of talent, what appears onscreen is a thing of unique and treasured beauty -- the rare children’s feature that doesn’t shy away from themes of death or uncertainty, instead gently embracing them in a manner that makes them seem not quite as frightening as they may have when we first took our seats and the lights began to dim. On the surface, The Secret World of Arrietty is a breathtakingly gorgeous portrait come to vivid life, but a closer look reveals that the mature themes addressed in the movie are painted with just as fine a brush, making it not only a wonderful addition to the Studio Ghibli canon, but also a picture that’s certain to grow in parallel with its wide-eyed audience on repeated viewings.
Headstrong and full of energy, 14-year-old Arrietty (voice of Bridgit Mendler) is just like any other adolescent girl, except for the fact that she's only a few inches tall. Arrietty and her parents (voices of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) are Borrowers -- a race of tiny people who live among regular-size humans undetected, and only emerge to scrounge miniscule amounts of essential living supplies from well-stocked cupboards and cabinets. Contact with their human hosts is strictly forbidden, but when Arrietty attempts to help her father gather a few necessities, she makes the mistake of being seen by 12-year-old Shawn (voice of David Henrie). Shawn’s heart is failing, and in preparation for his upcoming surgery he has come to live with his great-aunt in the country. He’s heard stories about the Borrowers from his parents ever since he was a little boy; now that he knows those stories are true, he wants nothing more than to befriend them. Unfortunately for Arrietty and her family, who may be the last of their kind, his baleful housekeeper Hara (voice of Carol Burnett) is determined to prove the existence of the Borrowers by any means necessary -- even if it means destroying their tiny home. Perhaps by working together, Shawn and Arrietty can figure out a way to safeguard the secret of the Borrowers and protect them from the prying eyes of humans.
Opening as Shawn sits in the passenger seat of a car while the city fades into the rearview mirror, The Secret World of Arrietty echoes Spirited Away as a young child travels toward a new home and an indeterminate future. As Shawn settles into his new room, just beneath the floorboards Arrietty also prepares to begin a new chapter in life -- in her case, one that involves learning the secrets of Borrowing from her experienced, always-prepared father. By allowing us to accompany the young girl on her first adventure into the outside world -- and showing us familiar settings from an exciting new perspective -- Miyazaki immediately instills us with a sense of wonder and endears us to the main character. Meanwhile, director Yonebayashi executes the impressive set piece with a stylistic flair that renders a typical suburban home a mountainous palace of untold wonders. For a feature directorial debut, The Secret World of Arrietty is a remarkably accomplished piece of work. Yet considering that Yonebayashi previously served as an artist on such Studio Ghibli films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo, it’s no surprise that, at least visually, this movie stands tall among the works of master Miyazaki himself. The way that the rays of sunlight break through the clouds and sparkle off the flowers in the garden would make the film worth watching for the art alone, but the fact that these stunning visuals are backed by a thoughtful, thematically complex screenplay simply serves to ensure that our intellect is stimulated along with our eyes.
Perhaps with a few exceptions (Ponyo comes to mind), Miyazaki’s films have never been known for their simplicity. The Secret World of Arrietty carries on this tradition. Under the pen of any other writer, a 12-year-old boy lamenting the “hand of fate” could easily come off as cloying or insincere. Instead, given the delicacy of the screenplay and the impressive vocal performance by Henrie, simplicity and depth become as natural friends as Shawn and Arrietty. Likewise, as we learn about Arrietty’s family’s past, and discover that they may in fact be the last Borrowers alive, we become just as emotionally invested in her struggle to survive as we do in Shawn’s. As mature as some of the themes in The Secret World of Arrietty may be, however, they never become morose enough to detract from the sense of wonder we get from experiencing Arrietty’s world from her perspective, or watching Shawn as he comes face-to-face with something he’s only heard about in stories and sacrifices his own safety to preserve the legend.
With The Secret World of Arrietty, Yonebayashi proves himself to be not just a worthy successor to Miyazaki, but an accomplished visionary in his own right -- effortlessly bringing the themes of the picture to the forefront through strong imagery and fluid storytelling. Should he continue to grow as a filmmaker and choose to remain with Studio Ghibli, movie lovers may come to learn that traditional animation can still be as exciting in the 21st century as it was when Snow White first graced the silver screen back in 1937.
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