Movie Review: The Secret World of Arrietty
When it comes to Studio Ghibli movies, there’s a moment that I always wait for within the first 30 seconds. It starts with the following image:
This image is usually followed by a random child’s voice from the auditorium, who suddenly shouts out, “Totoro!!” While some in the audience wonder what the child just said, those of us who know of Totoro and the films of Studio Ghibli usually chuckle, or feel our own mouths widening into a grin as we sit back, and wait to see what the house of Miyazaki-san has in store for us.
Adapted from Mary Norton’s story The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty concerns a family of little people living in a small dwelling under the floorboards in a country house. The three-person family consists of Pod (the quiet, industrious father), Homily (the rather excitable mother/housewife), and Arrietty, their 14-year-old daughter, who has mainly lived under the floorboards, and ventured out into the garden nearby.
One day, Pod decides that it’s time for Arrietty to join him on an errand to ‘borrow’ some items from the humans in the household. Their adventure is cut short when Arrietty is seen by a young boy who is staying in the house temporarily. Soon after, he leaves a cube of sugar she dropped, along with a small note, which causes Pod to consider that they may need to move away, given that they have been seen.
One of the hardest things for Studio Ghibli, is its tendency to mainly release films under the direction of either Hayao Miyazaki, or Isao Takahata (Ghibli’s other co-founder, and director of the animated drama, Grave of the Fireflies). There have been only a handful of productions put out by the studio under other directors, but very few have involved the grooming of young persons to then start directing beyond just one film.
The best of the non-founder-directed films in my opinion, was Whisper of the Heart, directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, and released in 1995. While Miyazaki had a hand in the screenplay, storyboarding, and producing departments, I still feel that Kondo’s vision was what really guided the film to being a wonderful ‘hidden gem’ in the Ghibli library. Sadly, he died in 1998, with Whisper the only film he directed.
Since then, it’s been a rather hit-and-miss track record for Ghibli regarding other directors. Some shunned the rather stiffly-drawn The Cat Returns (a pseudo-sequel to Whisper), and Tales of Earthsea, a film directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, that received largely mixed and negative reviews (Hayao himself also didn’t have very kind words in regards to his own son’s directorial debut).
With Arrietty, Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi moves into the director’s chair…and gives us probably one of the finest non-founders films since Whisper of the Heart (though Miyazaki does have a hand in the filmmaking process, serving as co-screenwriter, and executive producer).
The film places us in a country setting, with some lush and beautiful artwork that shows us why the Ghibli artists are some of the best at capturing the natural world.
The world of Arrietty is also very intriguing and ingenious. If you are a fan of miniature items or stories where persons of different height use normal-sized objects, or create their own things, you might be in for a treat. The devices that Pod creates are very surprising. It’s also amazing to see how they treat various things that would seem ‘normal’ to us. When Homily pours tea, due to the density of liquid at their size, it comes out as blobbish droplets. Another surprise is when Pod and Arrietty go on their errand. Arrietty’s first venture into the house after dark is filled with sounds that assault her senses. The hum of a refrigerator, the sound of water going through pipes, even the ticking of a grandfather clock is amplified. It’s these little touches that really make this more than just a ‘shrunken persons’ story.
With the human element of the film (or Beans, as the Borrowers call us), we have Shawn, a young boy who has been sent to the country house for a week. Aside from an Aunt who has brought him and visits him daily, the only other human companion Shawn has is the caretaker, Hara, a little woman who seems to feel there’s something going on inside the house. Character-wise, Shawn put me moreso in mind of Seiji from Whisper of the Heart, with a bit of the calming demeanor of Haku from Spirited Away.
Even though I am a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, I am rather picky when it comes to dubbing, which is often the only way to see many of their films released in theaters stateside. Up until now, Howl’s Moving Castle was the benchmark for me regarding dubs (when Christian Bale can make Howl’s original Japanese voice sound mediocre, then you’ve got a sure-fire winner!). I can safely say that vocals director Gary Rydstrom does a superb job here as well (FYI, Gary was a sound mixer for Skywalker Sound, before he went to work at PIXAR).
I was originally unsure about Amy Poehler being used for the voice of Homily, but it soon sounded right as Amy hit a number of Homily’s nervous rhythms to a ‘T.’ Will Arnett gives Pod a gruff assured sound, mixed in with little grunts or asides (Pod is sometimes not as vocal as Homily is). There is a mature playfulness that Bridgit Mendler gives Arrietty that keeps her from getting too close to the ‘loud-and-happy’ trap that some voice actresses can fall into with anime dubs. Probably of all the voices, it is David Henrie as Shawn that comes off sounding a bit too ‘mature’ for his appearance. My guess is the character of Shawn is around Arrietty’s age of 14, but he sounds moreso like he’s in his late teens. One nice little bit of casting is Carol Burnett as the housekeeper, Hara. She doesn’t have a lot of lines, but she does some wonderful little things with her voice that had the audience cracking up.
The music also helps with a magical and memorable tone to the film. Those who are fans of Jo Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli scores may seem a little disoriented, but if one gives themselves over to the music of composer/songwriter Cécile Corbel, they will find a musical journey into territory that sounds both ancient and country-like in tone.
According to Cécile’s webpage (http://www.cecile-corbel.com/en/home.html), she is a big fan of the celtic harp, which is heard in a number of areas in the film. Her bio also mentions that Cécile is inspired by tales, ancient melodies and fairy moods, which are the basis of her musical world. That line alone proves that she was a perfect match for The Secret World of Arrietty.
For those worried that we may get another auto-tuned remix for the Radio Disney crowd like the song at the end of Ponyo…you can breathe a sigh of relief. We do have Bridgit Mendler providing the final song in the credits, titled Summertime. It feels a tad out-of-place in the general scheme of the film, but nowhere near as bad as what one might imagine.
Probably not since Spirited Away have I been afraid that a great little gem of an animated film will fall through the cracks. Like many works by Studio Ghibli, it feels like a tone-poem at times, which may make some sugar-induced children antsy. However, it’s a rare film that I found to be short-and-sweet, relaxing, and definitely more calm amid the months when action movies are released endlessly in hopes of snaring bored movie-goers.
It’s interesting to note that it’s been 10 years since Spirited Away introduced many in the U.S. to the world of Studio Ghibli. Very little advertising was done, and it only showed on 151 screens. This weekend, Arrietty will have the biggest stateside opening for a Ghibli film, on over 1300 screens. A few weeks ago, I was surprised when I wandered into my local Disney Store, and a preview for Arrietty was playing on their main viewing screen! We’ve come a long way since 2002, and as my friend Donna wondered…is it only a matter of time before the likes of Totoro or Jiji may be sitting on Disney Store shelves next to Woody and Mickey?
Author’s Note: I would be remiss if I did not thank my good friend, Donna Bohdanyk, for helping me obtain a pass to see The Secret World of Arrietty. Thank you Donna, for being a great friend, and for allowing me to introduce you to the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s work over 10 years ago.