International release schedules can be an interesting thing. It's been more than a year and a half since "The Secret World of Arrietty" hit Japanese theaters (known in Japan as "The Borrower Arrietty"). In that time, the Studio Ghibli film won the Japanese Animation of the Year award in 2010, topped the Japanese domestic box office and saw an international release on home video. However, no official U.S. version meant the film was near invisible on this continent until Disney picked it up for release. While the new release has been dubbed with an English soundtrack, Studio Ghibli fans should rest assured, nothing was lost in translation.
Based on the children's book, The Borrowers, "The Secret World of Arrietty" is a moving story of friendship between two young adults who are both facing adversity in very different ways. One of them also happens to be about four inches tall. That would be Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler).
As a borrower, Arrietty and her family live in the basement of a human house. They've built their own miniature home out of bits "borrowed" from the humans. For example, postage stamps hang on the wall as full-size artwork. The borrowers try to be as self-sufficient as possible, so they only take things that humans aren't likely to miss. Above all, however, a borrower must never be seen by humans.
Arrietty's parents have sheltered her somewhat, allowing her to live a life relatively free of worry. Her mother is a neurotic wreck, but Arrietty takes in all in stride by helping out with the chores and braving a run through the garden, even when the human family's cat is on the prowl. It is Arrietty's zest for life and natural curiosity that set the stage for the events of the film.
Sean (David Henrie) is a 12-year-old, full sized, human being who has been sent to live at his aunt's house. Much like Arrietty, he has a great curiosity, but his disposition is tempered by the fact that he has a serious heart condition. Sean is scheduled for heart surgery in a week, and he's resigned himself to the fact that he might not survive. He's at his aunt's place to rest up before the surgery.
Sean and Arrietty end up meeting inadvertently during Arrietty's first official "borrow." Though she is initially cautious, her curiosity pushes the two into a friendship of equals. As the two learn that they're really not that different from each other, they have to avoid the housekeeper Haru (Carol Burnett), who is determined to prove that the "borrowers" exist — at any cost.
Though the overall plot is fairly straightforward, the film is carried by a combination of solid pacing, strong voice work and absolutely stunning visuals. Mendler and Henrie are to be commended on their performances, with the various discussions between the two conveying layers of emotion beyond the words that are spoken. There were a few points where the script could have strayed into melodrama, but it smartly pulled back from the edge every time.
Visually, the film looks much like a watercolor in motion, with good use of color and lighting. It avoids the processed, computerized perfection of modern animation, instead evoking the look and feel of a hand-drawn classic. Most any frame could easily be made into a print and mounted on a wall as a poster.
Music and sound effects also deserve a mention. Cécile Corbel's score accents the mood of each scene without feeling overpowering, while the sound effects help bring perspective into focus. This is especially notable when the action shifts to Arrietty's viewpoint. Little things that are merely background noise to Sean, such as footsteps, are booming impacts when heard through Arrietty's ears.
Whether you're an animation fan or just looking for a good family film, "The Secret World of Arrietty" fits the bill nicely. It's further proof that Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are still masters of the art form.
"The Secret World of Arrietty" is rated G and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes. It is showing in 2-D.
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