“The Secret World of Arrietty,” the long-awaited adaptation of Mary Norton’s popular children’s story “The Borrowers” from Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away,” “Ponyo”), finally received its North American release. Directed by newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi from a screenplay by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, the film is a beautifully hand-drawn and touchingly crafted coming-of-age story.
The 14-year-old Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) lives with her parents Pod and Homily (voiced by real-life couple Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) beneath the floorboards of an old country house. As members of the miniature Borrower race, they subsist on items gleaned from their larger human counterparts. But despite living right under the humans’ noses, the Borrowers manage to maintain a low profile; that is, until Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly young man, comes to rest up at the house before he must receive a life-threatening operation.
Shawn spots Arrietty one night while she is out on a borrowing mission, simultaneously breaking the cardinal rule of her kind and sparking a mutual curiosity between the two. Against her parents’ will, Arrietty and Shawn form an unlikely friendship founded upon a shared sense of uncertainty toward the future; she because her family may be among the last remaining Borrowers and he because of his poor health. When the vindictive housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) finds evidence of the Borrowers’ secret existence, it is up to Shawn and Arrietty to save her family.
As is always the case with Studio Ghibli films, attention to detail is paramount. Each painstakingly hand-illustrated frame is like its own exquisite painting, creating a refreshing contrast with the majority of contemporary, digitized animation. From the Borrowers’ miniscule home to the country house’s luscious garden, the sheer artistry is consistently breathtaking.
The dialogue seems to falter at times, although whether this is merely a function of the translation into English or an inherent problem with the script is unclear. And although the relationships between characters, particularly Shawn and Arrietty, are fully fleshed out, certain elements of the story seemed forced<\p>–<\p>such as Hara’s sudden shift toward villainy. The conclusion verges on overly sentimental territory, but since this is a trend within Ghibli films, perhaps some things are merely lost in translation or across cultural boundaries.
Despite the fact that Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is much more in line with the studio’s most recent works, continuing the trend of straightforward children’s movies. Although the animator’s earlier projects, such as “Totoro” and “Princess Mononoke,” also tend to be categorized as children’s films, they possessed darker undertones that lent a certain complexity, which allowed for older and younger viewers to interpret different meanings. Perhaps this shift is indicative of Miyazaki’s perpetual promise to retire, but in the event that he finally does, we can rest assured that Studio Ghibli is in good hands with new talent like Yonebayashi to take the helm.