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The Secret World of Arietty

February 21, 2012
The Secret World of Arrietty

The latest Studio Ghibli film for Walt Disney Pictures to redub into English is The Borrower Arietty, released here as The Secret World of Arietty. You’re probably most familiar with Ghibli from the works of director Hayao Miyazaki, but on this one he takes a back seat to new director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, though Miyazaki did still adapt the screenplay from Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers. If this is any indication, Yonebayashi has learned well from working under Miyazaki.

Where Miyazaki fantasies like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo connect mundane characters to enormous alternate realities, this time we’re drawn into a tiny one, contained entirely within the bounds of a semi-rural house. Twelve-year-old Shawn (David Henrie) moves to the home of his aunt, Sadako (Gracie Poletti) and her housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), for some relaxation before he undergoes an operation to repair a heart defect.

But Shawn, Sadako, and Hara aren’t the only occupants of the house. Besides the cat, there is a family of “little people” — at most a matter of inches tall — living in the walls and under the floors. They are Pod (Will Arnett), his perpetually-worried wife, Homily (Amy Poehler), and their curious, fourteen-year-old daughter Arietty (Bridgit Mendler). They call themselves “borrowers”, since they subsist on materials “borrowed” from the “beans” — human beings — around whom they live. It’s never much — a cube of sugar here, a roll of tape there — but it’s enough for them to get by and nothing the beans will notice.

And this is important because — as usual in a Ghibli story — the mundane and the fantastic have at best an uneasy coexistence. Once a borrower is seen, we’re told, the beans’ curiosity cannot be contained, and the borrowers must move. It’s not clear whether the borrowers’ fates would be as grist for some sort of mill, or merely as a curiosity to be poked and prodded, but either way it can’t be pleasant to be a borrower in the humans’ world.

But, of course, Shawn and Arietty will come into contact, Hara’s curiosity will be ignited, and Homily’s fears for her family’s safety will be justified.

Must it really be said that a Studio Ghibli film is gorgeous, or is that just redundant? The usual anime-style characters walk across beautiful, painted backgrounds that Yonebayashi shoots with shifting focus, giving the images a lush depth that needs no fancy glasses or surcharge to be seen.

And the sights are every bit as fantastic as those in other Ghibli productions, despite the fact that they’re all so familiar. Homily pours tea in giant, bulging droplets, and rain doesn’t soak Arietty’s dress so much as it settles on the cloth to be brushed away. Tissues stand stiff, and postage stamps hang on the walls. There’s just so much texture that you could probably get more than one full viewing on mute just to look at it all.

It’s also a delight to listen to, with a Celtic-folk score and theme composed by the Bretonne Cécile Corbel. Though the characters and the house in general still appear mildly Japanese, there are little details that reinforce this connection to the roots of the story in stories of the Celtic fay. It’s not Ghibli’s usual source material, but they fuse it smoothly with their own style.

The Secret World of Arietty may not be the biggest, most epic story to come from Miyazaki’s pen, but it’s easily among the most charming.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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