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.
A key component of life in Arrietty is relationship—starting with the forbidden friendship between the giant Shawn and the tiny Arriety. It is a dynamic, complex relationship built on mutual curiosity that promises growth and blessings, but also threatens to cost both of them. Out of this unlikely bond springs a mix of complex emotions and themes—opening the door for some great family conversations. Shawn so strongly wants to believe in the Borrowers. Riddled by disappointment, sadness, and a lack of control, he wants the rumored existence of these little people to be real. He just wants to know. He wants to discover some joy in the world—a sign that there's more to life. Some hope. A friend.
Meanwhile, Arrietty wants to trust Shawn but knows what happens when humans discover Borrowers. It never goes well. Their curiosity cannot be quenched. Many borrowers have lost their lives "thinking a human meant no harm." And in the end, Arrietty and Shawn's friendship does lead to negative consequences and guilt. It's a loss of innocence. They can never go back. They are forced to grow up. They learn to forgive. They confront the idea of death—wonderfully set against the living vitality of the movie. They learn what it means to be brave. And Shawn, in his frailness, finds strength; finally able to protect a loved one the way he has been protected his whole life.
Another accomplishment of the film is Arrietty's relationship with her parents. Rarely do movies show a child with as much genuine adoration, respect, and admiration for her parents—and the love is mutual. As a new dad, I especially enjoyed the father-daughter dynamic. She truly relishes time with her stoic, strong, and somewhat stiff father. In one scene, she watches him accomplish a feat and exclaims, "Papa, you are great!"
While Arriety is a strong female character, her parents tend to echo old, perhaps cultural stereotypes. Perhaps this difference is to show a generational evolution. Pod is quiet, stern, and powerful. Homily is a hysterical and dramatic worry-wart mother who panics, frets, faints, and freaks out. And while the film's leisurely pace will be appreciated by some, it might test the patience of others, especially younger viewers. And when the film gets bogged down in a plot by an overzealous housekeeper (Carol Burnett), it loses some steam and charm.
But overall, it's hard to find many family films so authentic, so earnest, so supportive of family, and so honest about life's joys and hardships. They don't come separately. They are intermixed, ingrained, and intertwined. That's life. It's all around. And it is worth celebrating.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- How is borrowing by Arrietty and her family different from stealing? Is it OK to take something if you know the owner won't miss it? Can we steal if "we only take what we need?"
- Shawn says, "We all have to die sometime. Sometimes things happen that are beyond your control. There's nothing you can do but just accept the hand of fate." What do you think about death? Is there nothing we can do but accept what happens in life? Who is in control? What does fate mean to you?
- Arrietty tells Shawn that you don't have to just accept what happens. You can fight. You can try. How does that help Shawn?
- The screenwriter said he wanted to tell this story because the "setting is perfect for our times. Our old lifestyle of mass consumption is nearing an end. The concept of borrowing rather than buying is becoming the new standard." What does that mean to you?
- What does it mean to be brave?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Secret World of Arrietty is rated G. Younger kids could be frightened by scenes of peril as the little people have to worry about bugs, rats, cats, crows, and humans. A scene of a frantic crow stuck in a window could scare some kids. The idea of death is discussed; one boy who may be dying talks about the inevitability of death for all people, but a girl shows him that you should try to live well while you can. She shows him hope. It s mentioned that a child's parents are divorced. A character suggests a person is acting crazy because she is drunk.
Photos © Walt Disney Pictures and Studio Ghibli
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