Allow me to introduce my buddy, Stephen. He’s gonna chime in from time to time with an anime review, so give him a big welcome. First up, it’s the newest Studio Ghibli film to hit US shores!
The Borrower Arrietty [借りぐらしのアリエッティ, Kari Gurashi no Arietti]
AKA Arrietty, Arrietty: Le Petit Monde des Chapardeurs
Original Release 2010 in Japan, US Theatrical Release 2012
Starring Bridget Mendler, David Henrie, Amy Poehler, Gracie Poletti, Moisés Arias, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Lately, Studio Ghibli has made quite a few adaptations of children’s fantasy stories. This one is based upon The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The book was written in 1952 and set in the English countryside, so the film’s setting of modern-day Japan is obviously a bit of a change. To further muddy the waters, the character names were changed in the Disney release of the film to make them more familiar to Western audiences, or perhaps to match with the original book. Since I have never read the source material, I can’t say how much the plot was altered for The Secret World of Arrietty, but anyone who read the book should go in expecting something a little different from the original.
The film starts off with a boy named Shawn, who has a heart condition, and he has been sent to an old house in the country to get some rest. When he arrives, he catches sight of young Arrietty, a miniscule girl who is one of the Borrowers that live under the house. Borrowers are only a few inches tall, and slink around the house at night, “borrowing” what they need from the humans. They bear quite a few similarities to various creatures of English folklore, most notably Brownies. Shawn has arrived on the eve of Arrietty’s first borrowing, and she is eager to prove herself, despite the new human who makes sneaking around the house riskier.
Arrietty’s adventures are great fun to watch. We see lavishly detailed normal objects, magnified into wondrous new sights. Cats and crows are fierce monsters, while ants skitter around Arrietty’s feet like underfoot puppies, and crickets chase her down to eat her flowers. Earring hooks and rolls of tape are used to grapple up and down curtains and cabinets. Water drops, tiny to humans, coalesce and bulge to the Borrowers, and even in scenes when Arrietty cries, the tears roll down her cheeks in huge globs.
In a lesser film, these things would have been boring, showing us nothing more than dull routine. Here all the little details become fascinating, and the most everyday items become new and filled with mysterious potential. That is perhaps the greatest success of this film. It gives a new perspective to the normal world, allowing us to marvel at things we see all the time. A simple kitchen becomes a massive puzzle to solve, a cabinet is a sheer cliff, and the walls’ interior a labyrinth. Arrietty’s adventurous nature permeates the film, and makes what could have been a dry and boring story feel rich and invigorating. Despite little in the way of action, the film still manages to make even the most mundane events a challenge to overcome.
All of these events are animated with utter perfection, capturing fluid motion for the characters and vivid detail in the environments. Just watching the events occur is mesmerizing. I could go on about the animation, but really, it’s as perfect as you can get. What more can I say?
I expected themes about theft to be more prominent, like a similar movie from my childhood, The Secret of Nimh. Instead, Arrietty focuses more on courage and persistence through difficulty. The film remains upbeat and enthusiastic as the Borrowers try to avoid being caught by the humans and Shawn faces the limitations of his illness. And here it deftly manages another difficult task: telling an uplifting story without being sappy.
There are some odd moments of the plot that felt a little unfulfilled, especially regarding the dollhouse, but they are tiny problems in a sea of great moments. The film worked on all levels, despite a very sedate pace. Ultimately it entertained from start to finish, and kept me rooting for the characters the whole way through. That’s quite an accomplishment for something aimed entirely at children.