Guest Review: The Secret World of Arrietty (2010/2012)

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.

10 comments to Guest Review: The Secret World of Arrietty (2010/2012)

  • Nice review Stephen! It looked beautiful as is expected from Ghibli of course and although it kept me engaged I must be honest and was expecting a bit more from it. Still a solid watch though!

  • Thanks!

    This is normally the kind of film that would leave me completely bored, and I went into it just trusting Ghibli to pull it off. The fact that they did impressed me quite a bit, so I have to give them credit for that.

  • Finally saw this one yesterday and greatly enjoyed it. You speak the truth in the review: the animation is perfect and the story is sedate, yet thoroughly entertaining. I was browsing Wikipedia’s plot entries on the books to see how closely the story was followed, and it looks like there was quite a bit of creative license used by Ghibli. For instance, the Spiller character isn’t introduced until the third book I think. Anyway what I’m getting at is that while watching it felt like a very Japanese story, especially how it handled the boy’s illness and the ending. This was one of the big reasons I enjoyed it and I had to see if it was because of Ghibli or if the source material was the same.

    In any case, it’s a good one and I’m glad I got to catch it on the big screen.

    • Yeah, seeing this in theaters is a real feast for the eyes. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I hadn’t though about it in terms of being Japanese (probably because most of what I watch is Japanese), but you’re right, the delicate handling of things like the ending is what really makes it all come together.

      Still can’t wait for the video release so I can see it in Japanese.

      • Oh man, the ending was one of my favorite parts. The first borrowing where they steal the sugar cube was probably the best scene though. But man, as the ending was unfurling I was hoping they’d end it where they did and then they did! I loved it. There were a couple of families that were somewhat perturbed that they didn’t get some sort of rousing Disney finale, but that’s their problem.

        I also overheard a lady saying to her kids, “That was OK. Not as fantastical as their other ones, but it was good, right?” Like she was trying to convince herself and her kids at the same time. I don’t think they were ready for how Japanese it was. I was though, and it definitely hit the spot.

        • May 22 on that DVD/Bluray release. So, pretty soon.

          • Cool. Sooner release than I was expecting.

            I’m all about endings. A good ending can completely turn around an otherwise unappealing story, and a bad ending can completely ruin an otherwise excellent story. For me, a story is mostly defined by its ending, so it has to at least work. And the ending here worked real well. That being said, I think my favorite scene was when Arrietty and Shawn team up near the end. I had a humongous grin on my face that entire section of the film.

            I think that first borrowing worked so well because it never explained anything. If her father had said, “Now we’re going to do this and this and this…” it would have ruined everything. Instead he just does it, and it’s amazing, because you don’t quite know how he’s going to do it. That scene had a lot of other good stuff going for it too, but that lack of explanation was the most important part.

            I also have a an absurd love of the moment when Arrietty shoos the ants away from the sugar cube. I remember as a child standing on an anthill once, and before I knew it, I was crawling with ants wondering just what the hell had landed on their doorstep. To put it mildly, I freaked out royally. I guess that scene hit strange childhood memories in just the right way for me.

  • Those are all great moments for sure. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I look forward to seeing it again at some point. That ant moment was great, and so well animated. I love when small details in film recall little childhood moments; those are always special.

    I love a good ending as well, but I think I am more forgiving of a film with a shitty ending. I kind of have to be with all the trash I watch, but without a doubt a good ending can redeem a mediocre film. The review that drops tomorrow is of a martial arts movie that is enjoyable and fun, but up until its ending it doesn’t really deliver on the promise of martial arts. So I was kind of disappointed through most of it thinking that there should be some fights. Then the last fifteen minutes are a non-stop fight that’s truly one for the ages, so I came out much more positively than I expected to.

  • Ooh, looking forward to it. This site is getting me much more interested in kung fu flicks. It’s a genre I’ve never spent as much time with as I’ve wanted to, and I’ve already got Merantau in the mail from Netflix.

    • Yeah! Martial Arts movies are such a love of mine so I hope you have fun checking them out. Merantau is a fun one. If you’ve never seen any of Jackie Chan’s 80s/90s HK stuff, that shit is pure gold. Wheels on Meals, Project A 1 & 2, Police Story 1 – 4, Drunken Master 2, Armour of God 1 & 2, Rumble in the Bronx, etc. He’s got so many and that’s just Jackie. Oh man, you have a wealth of cinema waiting for you if you choose to go down that path.

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