The Secret World of Arrietty is a celebration of the vibrant life surging all around us—a declaration of the countless stories being told all at once. The rich pen-and-ink animation is full of depth and essence. This colorful, layered world promises a story under every leaf and life behind every wall. Cats, crows, and the scampering bugs who gently touch each other's antennae have their own vignettes, suggesting full lives that the camera could follow if it so chose. This message is clear: At any moment, unnoticed in our human hustle and bustle, life is telling thousands of stories.
The movie, too, has an interesting story; Arrietty is the American translation of a Japanese film adapted from an English book. Forty years ago, acclaimed Japanese animator and director Hayao Miyazaki (best known in the U.S. for Oscar-winner Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo) first thought of animating Mary Norton's 1952 story The Borrowers. But it was not until 2008 that he revisited the idea, wrote the script and handed it to a first-time director at Miyazaki's legendary Studio Ghibli. Released in Japan in 2010, it was the year's top grossing film, seen by more than 12 million viewers, and won Animation of the Year award. Now, Arrietty has been translated, dubbed by an American cast, and distributed stateside by Walt Disney Pictures.
The movie—a more linear, less fantastical Miyazaki film than past projects—begins with the arrival of 12-year-old Shawn (voice of David Henrie) to his aunt's country home to rest his ailing heart. Like many children in Miyazaki's films, the sickly Shawn is able to see things that adults seem to miss—namely the tiny people, maybe 3 inches tall, who live under the floorboards. They are a family of three Borrowers, maybe the only ones left. Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler)—an amazingly complex, likable, and well-crafted character—is an independent and strong 14-year-old who lives with her parents, Pod and Homily (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler). The trio remains hidden from the humans until the night of Arrietty's first "borrowing"—a nighttime quest into the house for tissue and sugar. That's when an accident leads to a sweeping journey of discovery and excitement, friendship and danger, guilt and forgiveness.
As Arrietty discovers Shawn's world and he discovers hers, the film makes each environment wondrous and beautiful. It's one thing to make the Borrowers' organic, cacophony of a dwelling into an inventive treat to explore; it's another to turn an everyday, common kitchen into a breath-taking scene. Innovative use of scale, angle and—perhaps most notably—sound create absorbing and magical worlds out of the mundane.
The art design is simple but rich and full. Ghibli's beautiful, sentimental, traditional animation here—as well as the film's gentle, wandering pace—gives glimpses of ghosts of Disney's past. And like Disney and Miyazaki classics, Arrietty's leisurely pacing allows this world settle around you. Whether because of translation issues or an intentional contemplative pacing, scenes tend to linger. My favorite example is when Arrietty's parents sit at the kitchen table solemnly discussing their unclear future. Homily says, "What will become of us?" Several beats pass as the question hangs; we sit with these characters as they silently consider, prompting us to consider the question as well.