It's a sad commentary that the moronic and slapdash Alvin and the Chipmunks films rake in tens of millions of dollars at American multiplexes while the gorgeously lush and generously humane work of Hayao Miyazaki's Ghibli Studios is often relegated to art-house cinemas, attracting only animation aficionados and urbane family audiences.
A master at creating animated worlds that invite and seduce viewers into their wonder, Miyazaki's studio revels in hand-drawn lyricism and brilliantly painted palettes, capturing, in minute detail, worlds that are just a little off-kilter from our own. Often evoking Shinto beliefs, such films as Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Howl's Moving Castle eschew the good versus evil simplicity of too many childrens' films and instead embrace a world view that is gentler and more compassionate. There are dangers and bad behaviors to be sure, but Ghibli films often trade in messages of empowerment, love of the natural world, disdain for war, and a drive toward tolerance and self-enlightenment. More notably, they frequently feature plucky young heroines.
All those things can be found in The Secret World of Arrietty, a big screen adaptation of Mary Norton's 1950s novel, The Borrowers. Relocated from Victorian England to Western Tokyo, the tale centers around 14-year-old Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), a 10cm tall being who lives with her parents beneath a rural home. Taking things that the homeowners won't miss — like fallen hat pins and the occasional sugar cube — these tiny beings take great care to stay hidden from the humans they live off of.
Unfortunately, on the night of her first "borrowing," Arrietty is spotted by a young boy named Shawn, who has moved in with his great aunt in order to rest before a major heart operation. This initiates a tender and forbidden friendship between the two while arousing the suspicions of a nosy housekeeper named Haru (Carol Burnett), who plots against the mini visitors.
Though The Secret World of Arrietty echoes themes and situations in other Miyazaki films — in particular, My Neighbor Totoro — it's the aging anime master's protege Hiromasa Yonebayashi who has taken up directing duties. Helming his first feature, Yonebayashi masterfully creates a sense of wide-eyed wonder and discovery as we experience the awe-inspiring mysteries of an ordinary house as seen from the four-inch borrower's point of view. A row of bent nails makes for a dizzying bridge across a basement chasm, a pin becomes a handy sword, and the back lawn is an immense ocean of swaying grass blades. For the audience, each scene becomes a joyous and meticulously realized realignment of the all-too familiar world, with the standout scene being the theft of a single sugar cube, executed like a daring midnight bank heist.
And unlike Miyazaki's own son, whose work on Tales From Earthsea and Up on Poppy Hill showed little of his father's flare, Yonebayashi is clearly devoted to his mentor's bighearted and elegiac style. The Secret World of Arrietty pays as much attention to its story and the emotions of its characters as it does to its gorgeous painted imagery. The friendship that develops between Shawn and Arrietty is both bittersweet and touching, while Miyazaki's script quietly addresses issues of xenophobia and respect for the environment (after all, what better call for reuse and recycling is there than the needs of borrowers?)
Not everything is in league with Miyazaki's best work. The supporting characters, mainly Arrietty's father (Will Arnett) and mother (Amy Poehler) are under-developed and the voice work is uneven. More annoying is Cécile Corbel and Dale Sison's over-emphatic score.
But these are minor quibbles for a movie that transports its audience into a lovingly handcrafted world where childhood experiences are honored, the natural world bursts with color and life, and a pill bug curls up in the Arrietty's arms like a small dog.
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