The story told in “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a familiar one, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. A young boy, Sho, travels to the countryside to stay in the house his mother grew up in while he attempts to recoup from a severe illness.
From the first frame we are greeted with the classic, unchanged animation of Studio Ghibli. Character designs are reused and landscapes sometimes look vaguely familiar, but even the most seasoned Ghibli fan cannot help but be excited to enter a new world.
As always, “Arrietty” is a film grown on gorgeous, minute details that will hold a child’s attention when the plot gets slow, and will reward the diligent adult eye. Not only do these little gems shine on their own, but they evoke an overall sense of commitment from filmmakers—the same way films like “The Expendables 2” or “The Bourne Legacy” amount to little more than retreads of their own previous installments.
An early scene featuring Arietty racing under a porch alongside crickets twice her size and ascending the massive steps of an old brick pile is wonderfully drawn, a smile-inducing scene if there ever was one.
Like “My Neighbor Totoro” (sadly more than a few comparisons can be made between these two!), “Arrietty” has a calming pace, untroubled by mainstream plot conventions…shots linger for several frames longer than audiences are used to, allowing a character to blink a couple times or sip from a cup of coffee as a conversation ends. The effect is gorgeous and meditative every time.
The concepts of movement and stillness are much more prevalent in a hand drawn film when compared to its ornate, Pixar/Dream Works cousins; a particular scene shows wind rushing through tree leaves in the middle-ground, clouds slowly sailing through the background, and Arietty nearly motionless in the foreground. Perhaps there’s no better way to describe Ghibli’s magic than with such a sequence—it is normal, old hat, commonplace for Ghibli, and yet it is magic curiously missing from nearly all other films and studios.
Alas, the magic of “The Secret World of Arrietty” mostly ends here. The plotline of little people fearing big people is tiresome. While humans have plenty of history to be ashamed of, there is a huge capacity in us for good, and I’d like to think we could learn from another sentient species, especially one that speaks our language. I realize that thought might be lost on children, but I couldn’t find myself to engaged in Arietty and her family’s fear of the humans, especially in such a peaceful Ghibli setting.
The lack of conflict between characters does further disservice to the film; Arrietty’s father (serviceably voiced by Will Arnett) is exceedingly wary of humans, while his daughter maintains a growing interest—and still the two never find themselves at odds (a trite conflict perhaps, but conflict nonetheless).
Likewise, there is little growth. Arrietty and Sho’s relationship is shallow, uncomfortable and untraceable. SPOILER SPOILER In one scene Sho destroys much of the borrower’s home in attempts to install a new kitchen, nearly scaring Arrietty’s mother half to death; the scene is hardly mentioned again by any character, despite the mass-destruction caused and hysteria induced END OF SPOILER
While not enough can be said about the beautiful animation, which will likely seem genius compared to the 3D cash-ins that pass as animation these days (with several exceptions of course), most of Ghibli’s previous works surpass it in every category.
Despite the lack of plot and originality, at just over ninety minutes, “Arrietty” is definitely worth watching. In one scene the animator’s masterfully render an ordinary kitchen enormous and threatening. Before that, we see an extended sequence of Arrietty and her father traversing the insides of an ordinary home’s walls. As Arietty says to her father, “Borrowing is so much fun.”
BEST: Animation, pacing, attention to detail
WORST: Soundtrack, character movement, original plot