I had a great fear at the beginning of this week. See, we've spent all week espousing the plethora of virtues that make Studio Ghibli so fantastic. It's been a non-stop love fest from day one. My fear was that after all this praise and gushing I'd be sitting here writing a bad review for their latest film, The Secret World of Arrietty. How awkward would that be?
Thankfully my fears were entirely unwarranted. Studio Ghibli has once again delivered a gorgeously animated, detailed work of art that explodes with their signature imagination and style. While it may not be the greatest entry in their canon, it is still a joy for the eyes and a story worth seeing.
The Secret World of Arrietty
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the classic children's novel The Borrowers (previously made into a live action film). While a Japanese studio adapting an English novel may sound a bit strange, it's one of those stories that could work in almost any situation, but is incredibly appropriate for Studio Ghibli's brilliant imagination. The animators bring the borrowers, a race of extremely tiny people who live in secret by "borrowing" things from humans, to brilliant life. The film focuses on Arrietty, a young girl borrower who lives with her father and mother under the floorboards of a country house. Things start to go awry when a young boy named Shawn movies in and Arrietty and he strike up a friendship, which is strictly forbidden by Arrietty's parents. More worrisome is the house's maid who is obsessed with catching the little people and proving to the world she isn't crazy.
The outing marks the first film for director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a name far less well known than the studio's head Hayao Miyazaki. It appears that Yonebayashi has been taking notes during the years that he was an animator on some of Miyazaki's films. The same life, brilliance and attention to detail one comes to expect from a Miyazaki film is present throughout Arrietty as well. While Yonebayashi may need to learn a bit about pacing to truly become a master his first outing is an impressive effort if only for how wonderfully constructed and presented the world of the borrowers is.
Like almost every film the studio has put out Arrietty is simply a joy to watch. Gorgeously animated in a way that almost no films are these days it would be easy to simply get lost in the art of the film without listening to any of it. Simply picking out the myriad of clever uses for every day things in the backgrounds of the borrower's home is enough to keep you fascinated. Throw in a dash of a flower yard, a grumpy old maid whose facial expressions are hilarious and a large cat (no, not a catbus) and you've got a movie that's simply a treat to view.
I'm always so impressed at how well the secondary characters in Ghibli films turn out. They're usually fun, humorous, clever and just a bit deeper than you expect them to be. This is true of Arrietty as well. The supporting cast is absolutely fantastic as characters. Unfortunately that doesn't really stand for Shawn, who is a sickly boy, as he's about as interesting as the background. Actually, less interesting since the backgrounds are so spectacular. His cardboard character seems incredibly at odds with the rest of the magical film. The film also gets far too sappy and melodramatic near its end. This could just be a translation issue, but some of the more "emotional" lines are stomach-churningly bad and even caused a few snickers.
It's no real fault of the voice cast as this is one of the better dubs that Disney has done for a Ghibli film. With the likes of Bridgit Mendler (Arrietty), Will Arnett (Pod, Arrietty's father) and Amy Poeler (Homily) turning in performance that at least don't ruin the movie this is one of the few dubbed films where I wasn't wishing I had a remote that could flip on the Japanese audio and English subtitles. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but at least these English dubs get more people out to see the movie. It does have to be said that Disney does bring these films over to the US and makes them readily available to a much larger audience.
While The Secrete World of Arrietty may have some narrative and structural flaws running through it, it's easy to dismiss these and get sucked into the meticulously created world of Arrietty. There's a certain magic to the film (to all Ghibli films) that is nearly impossible to explain, but when you're watching it you can feel it. It's there in Arrietty; a certain life that is missing from a lot of animation. This is one of those movies that you see because it is worth literally seeing.