Every three years or so American audiences are treated to the latest animated triumph from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese artists that produced "Ponyo," "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away." Those three films were all helmed by a true living legend, Hayao Miyazaki. In "The Secret World of Arrietty," Miyazaki once again acts as a screenwriter and producer. The directorial duties this time around, however, are left in the hands of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. In his first feature film, Yonebayashi portrays a lovely little winner well worthy of Ghibli's name.
Based on "The Borrowers," a classic juvenile novel by Mary Norton, "The Secret World of Arrietty" spotlights a tiny family that resides under the floorboards of an old house. These little people, or Borrowers as they like to be called, are no larger than a grasshopper and survive off the meager food and materials humans, aka Beans, leave behind. Real-life husband and wife Amy Poehler and Will Arnett voice over/play a Borrower couple that inhabits a shoebox-sized dwelling. Arrietty, their audacious daughter voiced by Bridgit Mendler, just turned 14 and is eager to go out for her first barrowing. A simple trip through an old house is a monumental journey for a Borrower though.
Arrietty is immediately awe-struck upon arriving in a human's kitchen, which seems like a vast kingdom from her point of view. With a hook, some rope, and sticky shoes, Arrietty's father climbs a kitchen table as if it were a mountain. They run the risk of getting crushed, caught, and eaten by a cat all to achieve a single sugar cube, which will last them a long time. These scenes are reminiscent of the mice from "Cinderella" or Remy the Rat of "Ratatouille," all of whom found themselves caught up in a busy big world.
The Borrower family is put at risk when a young boy named Shawn, voiced by David Henrie, spots Arrietty in his room. Although Arrietty tries to avoid the human, Shawn can't help but be entranced by the little person. Ghibli films are known for depicting meaningful adolescent friendships between boys and girls like "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "The Castle in the Sky." The friendship that evolves between Arrietty and Shawn is no exception. Their moments together have a tender, quiet subtly to them as Arrietty learns to trust and Shawn comes to cope with his heart condition that may be fatal. All the while, a stout housekeeper named Hara plots to capture the Barrowers and expose them to the world.
There are many standard Ghibli attributes on display here, such as a fully realized female heroine, supportive parental figures, environmental themes and a villain whose more morally ambiguous than evil. "The Secret World of Arrietty" also barrows some factors from various Disney animations, too. The culture clash between the Barrowers and humans evokes memories of "The Little Mermaid," "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan." If the film has one shortcoming it's that some of these elements are just a little too familiar. But "The Secret World of Arrietty" carries out the material in such a pleasant fashion that this is easy to forgive.
Some children that enjoy their movies loud and rambunctious might find "The Secret World of Arrietty" a bit slow and refined for their taste. Kids that appreciate atmosphere and strong characters will find much to admire in the film though, as will their parents. Plus, this is thankfully a modern animated film with no 3-D effects or pop culture references. That's about as hard to come by in this day and age than a black and white silent picture ... oh wait ...
Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.