It’s comforting to know that even though animation is trending toward cutting-edge computer animation, hand-drawn wonders such as The Secret World of Arrietty will still grace our theatre screens.
Arrietty focuses a family of Borrowers—people no larger than your finger— who live in a small house underneath the floorboards of a much bigger house. They take only what is necessary to survive—food, tissue, and other things that won’t be missed. Arrietty has just become old enough to go on her first Borrowing with her father, Pod. However, a sickly boy named Shawn sees Arrietty during her expedition, and the two eventually form a friendship that jeopardizes the Borrower’s way of life.
Arrietty is an adaptation of the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Most adaptations of the book rely heavily on comedy and whimsy (and a farting dog in the 1997 film starring John Goodman), but this adaptation is very much a sombre film. Of course there’s humour, but the film also isn’t afraid to shy away from some very serious themes. Shawn outright says that he will probably die from his heart surgery, and Arrietty and her family constantly wonder if they are the last of their kind, and if they’ll survive leaving their home. However, it’s never oppressive, and the bright colour palette and warm score help to balance the more serious aspects of the film.
The film from is a bit of a departure from other Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away or, more recently, Ponyo, but if one thing has remained the same it’s the care and excellence put behind every line of dialogue and every frame of animation. Even though anime-guru Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) took a producing role, his protégé, first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, manages to emulate Miyazaki’s trademark style and penchant for details throughout the film. And in a film about little people in a big world, little details become equally as awe-inspiring. Instead of showing us gorgeous vistas of fantastical lands, as per the usual Ghibli-fare, we are instead shown how the fantastic can exist within our own homes. Postage stamps become portraits to the Borrowers, a pin becomes a sword, and a garden becomes a jungle. It’s a visually impressive film, with so many hidden surprises in the background that each viewing will show you something new. I particularly liked how rock-sized water droplets cling to the Borrower’s clothes, and tea comes out of a pot in large globules. Another welcome departure is the score from French artist Cecile Corbel. Whereas most Ghibli films have an orchestral score (usually by regular Joe Hisashi), Corbel’s Celtic score gives the film an earthy and adventurous feel, and is more appropriate for the story.
At first I was a bit disappointed when I learned that UK audiences would have a different dub than North America (especially with Mark Strong as Pod, Arrietty’s father) but the voice acting is excellent, especially from all three members of the Clock family. Bridgit Mendler plays Arriety as an adventurous spirit, whose youthful optimism is challenged when confronted with the realities of the outside world. Real-life couple Will Arnett and Amy Poehler play Arrietty’s parents, Pod and Homily. Arnett is usually known for his bold, comical characters (such as Horst “I killed a man with this thumb” in Ratatouille) but he really portrays Pod as humble and fatherly, always willing to depart some wisdom to his daughter. Amy Poehler, however, gets to channel her comedic crazy as Homily, Arrietty’s eccentric mother, and gets some of the best lines in the film (When Arrietty asks what’s taking her father so long, Homily replies “Why is my first thought always that he got eaten by the cat? What’s wrong with me?”). I only caught a few times where the voice didn’t fully synch with the mouth, but that’s to be expected from any localization attempt. Overall, it’s another round of successful localization and translating on Disney’s part, and I’m once again impressed by the caliber of voice acting that they invest in Studio Ghibli films.
My only qualms with the film is that it’s a little slow to start, and the climax, where Arrietty’s mother is captured and stored in a jar, is a little too slow-paced. I would have liked to see more of Arrietty exploring the house from a Borrower’s point of view, since most of her exploration is done either within the walls or outside.
Overall, The Secret World of Arrietty is a solid film from both from a Disney and Ghibli perspective. It’s a real treat for both kids and adults alike, and will stimulate your senses and touch your heart. And the next time you’re in your kitchen or sitting in the living room, you may find yourself scouting for the safest route for a Borrower to make their way to the jar of sugar.
The Muslim Take: Death is a subject that is often avoided in children’s cartoons, but the unique thing about anime is that is doesn’t carry with it the stigmas that are associated with cartoons here in the West. Because of this, anime are free to deal with some very heady topics (see my Fullmetal Alchemist retrospective for more on that). To the Borrowers, death is a constant fear, either immediately from the giant cat that is always hunting for them or in the long-run with the prospect that they may be the last Borrowers alive. Shawn, however, knows that death is inevitable for all things, and being on the verge of a life-threatening surgery, he has found peace with his mortality. As Muslims, we’re pretty much prepared to leave this world at a moment’s notice. Death can come anywhere, at anytime, and without notice. That’s why it’s important to always be prepared. Ibn Umar, a Companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said “In the evening do not expect [to live until] the morning, and in the morning do not expect [to live until] the evening. Take [advantage of] your health before times of sickness, and [take advantage of] your life before your death.”