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The Secret World Of Arrietty—movie review

by Leonard Maltin
February 17, 2012 12:55 AM
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We’ve come to expect so much from Japan’s Studio Ghibli—especially the films directed by Hayao Miyazaki like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle

that a film that’s merely pleasant, like The Secret World of Arrietty, comes as something of a disappointment. That may not be fair, but it’s understandable.

Miyazaki collaborated on the screenplay for this adaptation of Mary Norton’s much-loved book The Borrowers, and is also credited with “planning,” but director credit goes to Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The story is slight but charming, presented in a laid-back fashion that immediately distinguishes it from American animated features. Sean is a sickly 12-year-old boy who is sent to the country for complete rest. There he spies a mysterious little person who turns out to be Arrietty, the daughter of two “borrowers” who live in the floorboards under an adjacent house. Arrietty has been taught by her parents to fear (and avoid) human beings, but the independent-minded girl is intrigued with Sean, who doesn’t seem like a monster.

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Disney is releasing an American adaptation of the original film (another version, with an entirely different voice cast, was released in the UK), but the visual style and pace remain distinctly Japanese, and the only member of the voice cast who is readily recognizable is Carol Burnett, as a quirky housekeeper. Others on the soundtrack include Amy Poehler and Will Arnett.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a sweet film that retains the inherent fascination of two species of different sizes trying to understand each other’s worlds. I liked it better than the 1997 live-action movie The Borrowers, which relied too much on heavy-handed slapstick. I think this benign adaptation will appeal most to young children, so long as they aren’t hyperactive or steeped in high-energy video games. I hope there is still room for an approach to storytelling that doesn’t try to throttle its audience and allows its tale to unfold in an easygoing manner.

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  • Peter | May 30, 2014 5:13 AMReply

    Enchanting film, one of the best of its year. It bridges the different worlds of the protagonists in a meaningful way, and the animation stands tall among other animations for its painterly imagery.

  • Jim Ryan | March 8, 2012 12:42 PMReply

    I thoroughly enjoyed Arrietty, although I was disappointed to be the only patron for a weeknight performance (maybe more people will see it this weekend when I go for my second screening).

    It is a sweet, simple, touching movie about friendship-- a stark contrast to the loud, occasionally over-the-top version of The Lorax currently in theaters. The animation is typical of Studio Ghibli's high standard of traditionally drawn animation, and the voice performances fit well with the characters (although I think Disney has done better with lip synchronization and script on previous Miyazaki films they've released).

    I was incredibly impressed by the score for the film, written and performed by Cecile Corbel. A perfect complement to the tone of the film, Cecile's celtic inspired work truly made Arrietty a film to remember.

  • marais morris | February 25, 2012 2:23 PMReply

    everything was WONDERFUL about this movie except one thing: what was the purpose of having the beautiful dollhouse [that had actually been built just for the tiny borrowers previously AND have everyone in the household love and respect the tiny people, all except HARU and then at the end have this tiny family actually leave the house while nothing is ever said as to what has actually happened to Haru after her "breakdown"? why couldn't Haru have been taken out of the regular house kickiing and screaming which would have then left the dollhouse to the little borrowers? why did the dollhouse play such an important part in the story if it was not going to be given to the tiny borrowers at the end? that was the only thing that seemed odd to me; otherwise, this was a very good film.

  • Zeiram | February 18, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    What about Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro and Castle in the Sky. Nausicca? This man should be ranked in the same company as Felinni, Ford, Kurosawa and Spielberg.

  • Jim Ryan | March 8, 2012 12:35 PM

    @Zeiram: Miyazaki is ranked alongside his peers, both from the animation and live action communities, as one of the greatest directors and story writers of our time.

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