Few animation studios, other than Pixar, have a track record as strong as that of Studio Ghibli. The Japanese animation house has given us some of the most wonderful and touching animated films in the history of the medium, with classics such as “Spirited Away”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Ponyo” and “Princess Mononoke” to name a few.
Now they have adapted Mary Norton’s children’s book “The Borrowers” for its latest film, “The Secret World of Arrietty”. It isn’t as grand in scope as some of the movies that have come before it. It’s still a cute film with a gentle touch that is made in a way that only Studio Ghibli can produce.
Arrietty Clock (voiced by Bridgit Mendler– Good Luck Charlie, Wizards of Waverly Place), is a spirited young girl who lives with her parents within the floorboards and cracks of large estate home in the country. Arrietty and her parents are Borrowers – a miniscule race of people who survive by living below humans and ‘borrowing’ the things that they’re not likely to miss. A cube of sugar here and a cookie there are just enough for this family to stay alive and out of harm’s way.
The Clock family have been living in the same spot for years and have grown comfortable in their little burrow. Being a restless teenage girl that yearns for adventure, Arrietty begs her parents to go on a scavenging mission– a borrowing– with her father, Pod (voiced by Will Arnett –Ratatouille, Despicable Me, 30 Rock). Her mother, Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler — Napoleon Dynamite, Parks And Recreation) begrudgingly allows her to go, and soon the father and daughter set off to round up some supplies.
Arrietty accidently comes face to face with a sick, human boy named Shawn (David Henrie — Wizards of Waverly Place, How I met Your Mother) that has just moved into the home, and while she tries to avoid him, eventually the lonely pair forms a friendship. It’s not long however, before Shawn’s cruel caretaker Hara (Carol Burnett — The Carol Burnett Show, All My Children, Glee) discovers the tiny house-crashers and the family’s sanctuary gets turned upside down.
Since Disney began distributing the films of Studio Ghibli, people have often expected their films to fall into the Disney mold and tell stories in the Disney way. This has never been the case. But I always see it with every Disney/Studio Ghibli release.
Even at the screening Daniel and I saw at Disney Studios, there was a guy afterwards who couldn’t deny that the film was enjoyable, but he still had to complain about the changes Disney made to the original work. I overheard another woman, a mother who had brought her child to see the screening who admitted the film was cute but not what she expected. “How is this Disney?” she asked her husband in a rather reprehending tone.
The answer is, it isn’t. But this is what happens when you mix Disney with Studio Ghibli. Those who are attached to Disney animated films and not anime become confused and a little frustrated, and those who are attached to anime become sanctimonious, as if Disney is exploiting a Japanese national treasure and they should give Princess Mononoke a meet and greet in Critter Country or something.
Disney fans are often shocked that Studio Ghibli’s films often run longer than a Disney animated feature, and take a serious, more dramatic approach to their stories. Where are the songs?? Where is the cute animal sidekick?? On the other hand you have fans of Studio Ghibli and Japanese animation who are outraged that Disney would dare put their name on a Studio Ghibli film and make changes, no matter how subtle, to the original work.
For example, the original, Japanese title for this film is The Borrower Arrietty. The young boy whom Arrietty befriends, Shawn, is called Shô. How DARE they give him a Caucasian name! What I don’t get is that these same people would rather watch the films in Japanese with English subtitles, where their names are their names and no changes are made. I really don’t see the problem.
If you’re not too attached to Disney’s Way or Ghibli’s Way and you don’t fall into those emotional traps where you’re either upset that this Disney release isn’t a standard Disney’s animated movie with show tunes and furry friends, or that the origianl Japanese film is altered to be made accesible to American audiences, you’ll find that The Secret World of Arrietty is a good movie and a well told story.
The world of the Borrowers is adorable, with many of the cute, little touches that are a hallmark of Studio Ghibli’s films littered througout. It’s impossible to watch Arrietty’s mother pour singular drops of tea that fill entire miniature teacups and not feel your heart go all warm. Same goes for the sewing pin that Arrietty uses as a sword (though she never really uses it as more than an accessory). Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi uses scale to great effect, and it gives the film a wondrous sense of charm.
Part of the reason that Arrietty works so well is due to how vulnerable the characters of the Clock family are, and the way that the film has you constantly worrying about their safety. The world is extremely hostile to Borrowers. Even when Arrietty merely says “I’m going to step outside for a minute”, I’m like “NOOO! You’ll get eaten!!”
They’re so tiny and fragile that you can’t help but feel for them when Shawn’s caretaker starts trying to uproot their whole existence. A lot of it is due to the well-realized and likeable characters, and the actors bringing them to life (for the most part).
The the character of Shawn is a sickly boy with heart trouble, David Henrie voiced him as if he was at death’s door no matter what the situation. Even in scenes when he was outdoors, walking, running or climbing on the roof of his house to help Arrietty save her mother from Hara. His voice is a listless flatline from beginning to end and it did begin to grate on me after awhile.
Again, Disney is distributing this, but it is not a Disney film packed with songs and action sequences. While it is a deeply rewarding film, people with short attention spans might not get as much out of it. The Secret World of Arriety is one of those movies that truly defines the difference between an animated feature film and a cartoon. And, as is the case with most of Studio Ghibli’s filmography, it takes its time.
Toward the end, children in the audience began talking in the theater, rocking back and forth in their chairs from a lack of excitement. Even some adults began looking at their watches and accessing their smart phones.
This is not me saying that this film is boring. It isn’t. My seven-year old niece who was with us did not get distracted for a moment. I’d look over at her and she was fully engrossed. So if you want to know if taking your young one to see The Secret World of Arrietty is a good idea, I say it’s a judgement call.
Much like a lot of the characters it portrays, this is a slight film. While just as enchanting and lovely as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, Arrietty’s story is of a smaller scale. This isn’t a story about dragons or spirits or other fantastical elements – it’s more traditional. It’s a quiet and small story about a blossoming friendship.
Those who aren’t stuck in a Japanese vs. American animation or an Anime vs. Disney mindset, and are willing to accept that the story isn’t an action-packed musical, and are further willing to let these wonderful little characters into their hearts will find a film they won’t soon forget.