Tuesday, February 21, 2012

arrietty is like walking inside a painting

No one who is a fan of the output of Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli would be surprised that its latest release, The Secret World of Arrietty is well-made and entertaining, but they might be surprised at how drop-dead gorgeous it is.

From the very first frame of the film the audience is transported into a lush, painterly landscape. The familiarly-drawn anime characters of the story blend seamlessly with the watercolor backgrounds. It is simply beautiful to look at and experience. The story, written by Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, is based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers. The story is simple — teenage Arrietty lives with her parents, father Pod and mother Homily, below the floorboards of a house. Borrowers are tiny people who survive by borrowing what they need from the human beings, or beans, as they call them. One day an ill teenage boy named Shawn comes to stay in the house, in order to rest and prepare for a heart operation. He spies Arrietty, and while this knowledge becomes an immediate threat — Borrowers should not be seen by humans — the two become friends. Their friendship has a profound effect on each other's lives.

Arrietty in her room
Nina the cat and Arrietty
Arrietty hitches a ride with Shawn
Housekeeper Hara sees the Borrowers not as people, but as proof that she isn't crazy
The touch of Miyazaki is unmistakable — a strong and resilient young heroine (Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), the very real threat of illness on a child's life (My Neighbor Totoro), a large cat who is both threatening and protective (My Neighbor Totoro, The Cat Returns), the strong bonds that can be formed between people (Whisper of the Heart), and the power and magic of nature and landscape which permeates all of his films. Miyazaki has always been interested in household spirits, and the Borrowers certainly share characteristics with those beings. But the movie has its own pace and very individual look, which must be traced to first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi worked previously as an animator on the Studio Ghibli films Ponyo, Tales From Earthsea, Spirited Away, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Princess Mononoke.


The voice talent is also well-cast. Carol Burnett is inspired as more-than-nosy housekeeper Hara, who is the true threat to the Borrowers' safety. Bridget Mendler (Goodbye Charlie) and David Henrie (Wizards of Waverly Place) make a nice pair as Arrietty and Shawn. A restrained Will Arnett and over-the-top Amy Poehler are both perfect in their roles as Arrietty's parents Pod and Homily.

The Secret World of Arrietty is lyrical and gentle, with the story developing at the same pace as Arrietty's and Shawn's friendship. We know generally what Arrietty will find when she goes on her first borrowing expedition with her father, but the film still conveys a real sense of suspense and wonder as we see the pathways taken by the pair, the evidence of generations of Borrowers who have climbed through the walls and floors before them. Scale, which adults forget is always an issue for children, is a prime factor in Arrietty's world. She and her father climb veritable mountains of furniture for a single cube of sugar or sheet of tissue, which will last her family for months. The visual scale is temporarily tipped in her favor when a pair of potato bugs become pet-sized for Arrietty. The filmakers apparently did their nanoscience research, down to droplets of water and tea, which are as lovingly rendered as the many other details in the film.

The movie is different from most animated children's fare. There are no wise-cracking talking animals or hyerkinetic cuts and chases or radio-ready soundtrack. The music, by French musician Cécile Corbel is as laid-back and hypnotic as the visuals. The story, which originally was set in Norton's England, has been moved to the Western Tokyo neighborhood of Koganei, which coincidentally is where Studio Ghibli resides. The movie may take its time, but feisty Arrietty and her family are always on the go. They are explorers and ultimately nomads, but also creative thinkers. Children will love their real-world solutions for survival, like sailing away in a teapot. Arrietty's world sparks imagination.

A sense of temporary magic permeates the film. Children will relate, recalling the instant friendship that is born at the playground, or over a summer, and must sadly dissolve when both parties return home. Adults may be reminded of the feeling of an unfulfilled romance, a brief relationship that can never be. The Secret World of Arrietty charmingly portrays a sense of beauty and loss, but it isn't a sad film. Spring always comes again. Shawn and Arrietty will never forget one another, regardless of whether they ever see each other again.

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