“Timeless” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing children’s films, but rarely is it actually applicable. Too often, movies supposedly aimed towards kids are filled with pop-culture jokes or references that date the film almost immediately, sometimes in a mere few years. Certain Hollywood studios are more to blame for this trend than others, but we see it all the time, even from the best filmmakers.
However The Secret World of Arrietty, in the best way possible, is the sort of film that feels like it could have been made in any decade. Though calming and soothing, it is not boring by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s lush and heartfelt tone should delight both adults and children alike.
Based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers, the film followers a family of little people living under the floorboards of a house in the Japanese countryside, unbeknownst to the human owners. The main character, Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the US version), is eager to finally be old enough to start “borrowing” from the humans–stealing bits of supplies the big people won’t miss, such as an extra sugar cube or piece of tissue paper. One of the highlights of the film is the early sequence of Arrietty’s first night out with her father Pod (voiced by Will Arnett), and the inventive thought that went into what it would take for tiny persons to navigate a gargantuan human home in secret.
Unfortunately for the family, Arrietty accidentally breaks Borrower rules and makes contact with Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly human teenager brought to the country home to recover. As Arrietty and Shawn’s friendship grows, so does the danger of the Borrowers being discovered by the nosy housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett).
This is a Studio Ghibli production, and though written and mentored by “Japanese Disney” Hayao Miyazaki, it’s nice to see new director Hiromasa Yonebayashi take the reigns this time around. Miyazaki has an incredible body of artistic work, and a number of his films belong among the greatest animated classics ever made (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, for example). And though Miyazaki’s imagination knows no bounds, sometimes it can override his projects a bit more than it should. His most recent endeavor, Ponyo, was very fun, but felt a little scattered at times. Arrietty, on the other hand, is a much smaller story, with a gentle, softer, more focused touch. An American studio likely would have made this film focus on the physical plight of being a little person, having them fight off giant rats, for example (which admittedly would be pretty cool). But instead the film surprises us by basing it’s conflict around the tender relationship between Arrietty and Shawn, and each of their inner fears (Arrietty worries for the safety of her family, Shawn about a pending operation her may not survive). Even the house cat (which bears a striking resemblance to the asthmatic dog from Howl’s Moving Castle), introduced as a villain at the start of the film, turns out to be a friend in the end. Sharp-eyed Ghibli fans will also be delighted by the appearance of a tanuki (aka “raccoon dog”), which were the heroes of the sweet, bizarre, underrated Pom Poko.
With a beautiful score, charming characters, and lush animation, The Secret World of Arrietty is a wonderful treat for animation fans.