Though Pixar are often considered the reigning champs of cinematic batting averages (they have one of the best records for quality), Studio Ghibli is their equal, which may explain why Pixar’s John Lasseter has shepherded their work into American theaters. This has everything to do with filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose work on films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away puts him in the pantheon with Walt Disney. The Secret World of Arrietty wasn’t directed by him (though he has a credit as its planner), but it falls in line with his whimsical children’s films.
- Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
- Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
- Cast: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, David Henrie
- Music: Cécile Corbel, Dale Sison
Arrietty (Mendler), and her parents (Poehler, Arnett) are “borrowers,” miniature people who live under the houses of normal humans and steal things like sugar cubes and crackers to get by. Their house gets a new occupant in Shawn (Henrie), a sickly kid who’s about to have a major operation. He sees Arrietty and wants to protect her, but the housekeeper Hara (Burnett) thinks they are insects. Arrietty’s parents also don’t want her to interact with humans as they fear that they may be the last of their kind. But Arrietty and Shawn form a friendship that is complicated by Hara’s meddling.
- Beautiful: Though most of American animation is now done through computers, Miyazaki and company have stayed with the hand drawn cel animation, and their work is gorgeous. There’s nothing crude or referential about their work, it’s just about nature (a reoccurring theme in Ghibli films), and there is a great purity and spirit to their vision. It’s a story of the mysteries of communal space, and how there are hidden worlds that exist right in front of us.
- Charming: Based on the classic children’s book The Borrowers (by Mary Norton), though there is adventure and danger, it’s a very gentle and charming film that is basically about acceptance versus intolerance. On both sides there are people who don’t want there to be interactions between the two, and though the film functions as a metaphor for accepting others or otherness, this never overwhelms the film about an unlikely friendship.
The So So:
- Deliberately Paced: If the viewer or their child has ADD, this is probably not the film for them. Though it rewards the attention paid, those used to American animated films, which are filled with lots of action, noises and distractions, this works against that. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a slow moving film.
- Minor: When you’re Studio Ghibli, you’ve got a catalog of great movies for children. From Nausicaa, to Kiki’s Delivery Service, to Totoro to Spirited Away, you’ve established a fine lineage of great children’s entertainment. And though this is a solid entry in their filmography, it’s hard to say it stacks with their best. It’s a good movie, one of the better films of the year so far, but it’s hard to place it near their best work. That’s a great problem to have.
The worst that can be said about the film is that it’s a little slow and not everyone’s best work. That’s not so much a problem as nitpicking. Perhaps more importantly it shows the value of a well told tale and 2-D cel animation. The Secret World of Arrietty is an inviting and fascinating fantasy world that may grow stronger on repeated viewings. Which makes it a great little children’s film.
The Secret World of Arrietty comes to theaters February 17. Check it out.