The day has finally come! Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is playing stateside, at last. I've been revisiting the studios previous offerings over the past few weeks in anticipation of this.
Read my takes on...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
THE BORROWERS seems like an odd choice of source material for Studio Ghibli, at first. The studio’s dabbled with and followed through on a few adaptations of Western literature before, of course, but those books were pulled from shelves much less visible than the ones that’d hold Mary Norton’s classic. Five separate screen adaptations of this story have been produced since the 60’s - - one came out just this past year! There have been enough to insure that even the most casual moviegoer will find the premise familiar despite the differentiated title. Not a bad choice for the studio, really, but still an unexpected one. You’d figure Ghibli would want to journey down roads less traveled.
Watch THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, though, and it’s plain to see how the subject matter fits the studio’s animation philosophy more snugly than probably any project it’s produced so far. This is an animation house with an attention to detail so fine and so highly observational that it positively delights in all the small and mundane facets of life that other studios usually skip over so they can get to the cool exploding robots. It will lavish as much, if not more, time on rendering globs of tea pouring out of a doll's kettle as it will on a fighter plane blazing through the clouds. So a story centered on turning a quiet suburban house into a spectacular landscape - - one where window curtains are like flowing cliff sides and lazy house cats are like lumbering behemoths - - is a truly appropriate meeting of concept and Ghibli’s modus operandi.
If you’ve encountered any variation of THE BORROWERS, then you already know the gist here. Arrietty’s the teenage daughter in a family of “borrowers” - - tiny, little people who dwell in a house’s nooks and crannies and survive by “borrowing” the tiny, little things discarded by human beings (or simply “beings,” as they’re called in this world.) Her mother, Homily, is highly-strung and easily excitable, while her father, Pod, is a rugged and laconic, workmanlike survivalist - - a molehill’s mountain man, as it were.
Arrietty’s rite of passage as a borrower - - going out on a field mission to borrow a single sugar cube - - coincides with the arrival of Shawn, the sickly young son of her house’s owner. He’s been sent here to get some restful peace and quiet in the week or two before he must undergoes major surgery on his weak heart. As you’d figure, he has oodles of free time to mind the smallest details of this new home and notice these borrowers whose lives so frighteningly depend on going unnotticed.
Worlds collide when Arrietty gets a little too careless during her first couple jaunts in the field and Shawn spots this Lilliputian in broad, plain daylight (something a borrower is never, ever supposed to allow.) Arrietty fears her family will have to move because of this. Shawn just hopes it means he’s found a friend to alleviate his isolation.
There are few throwaway lines meant to stress the direness of these borrowers’ existence that instead raise a few puzzling questions. Pod and Homily repeatedly wonder aloud if they might be the last borrowers around, and when a “wild” borrower, Spiller, brings Pod back home after a daring rescue in the backyard, Arrietty excitedly remarks that he’s the first borrower she’s ever seen aside from her parents. Taking those facts in, one can’t help but wonder how a teenage girl has kept her sanity with no social interaction whatsoever outside of her small family unit. Or how these little people can be so cheery, or hold any hope for the future, when it’s been years since they’ve seen any fine, young, borrower boy left around for Arrietty to possibly make her own family with one day.
Even though that last question actually does get answered rather humorously by the end, we're still probably thinking too hard about this…
Over-serious considerations aside, all these characters are simply appealing; and that's thanks in no small part to another superlative dub from Disney. Amy Poehler uses an affected voice for Homily that she’s used in plenty of sketches, but it radiates sincerity even during the Mom’s wildest hysterics. Bridgit Mendler should almost be commended just for being able to keep up with Arrietty’s darting body language and the rapid cadence of her lips. You honestly never get the sense that the character wasn’t animated to match her voice. It's a treat to hear Carol Burnett after such a long time, too, as she's clearly having a ball playing the flick's antagonist housekeeper who's so amusingly fixed on trapping these little people.
David Henrie maybe sticks out a little as Shawn simply by overplaying the sick boy’s infirmity some. You get the sense that he’s medicated the entire time, but you're free to guess the strength of dose and the flavor.
Anyway, the real selling point, of course, is the signature Ghibli style that makes this new visit to such an oft-visited story not simply worthwhile, but truly warranted. At last, you aren’t thinking about the green screens or rear projectors that the borrowers surely have to be standing in front of, nor of the sometimes-convincing compositing techniques that must be used, so that real actors can look like they’re about as big as mice. Instead, you’re caught up in how fantastic our world seems from these borrowers' perspective; and then how intriguing their little world looks from the vantage of a "being." Most impressively, the flick manages to present both tracks of discovery at once.
The stand-out scene doesn't actually involve Arrietty navigating her family's little fun-house within the walls, nor her fleeing in terror from cats, crows and other predators. Nah, the high point is her introduction to the beings' kitchen, where all the regular appliances take on alien mystery as they hum in the dark, louder and more ominously than they've ever seemed to us.
Just as that part gives a regular old room a surprising degree of wonder, so too does this flick get you to look at an old book you may have easily dismissed as old hat with a new-found excitement. Very much a "vitamin fortified" family adventure, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY is not to be missed, regardless of how familiar or unfamiliar you may already be with THE BORROWERS.