English author Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers is transformed in this meticulously animated adaptation. Studio Ghibli’s latest offering concerns a tiny girl and her family who live beneath the floorboards of a house, unbeknownst to the human inhabitants above. They secretly acquire items without being detected in order to live. This is the same Japanese studio that brought us the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, both of which were helmed by internationally recognized director Hayao Miyazaki. However, The Secret World of Arrietty has a much more comprehensible story than those impenetrable epics. This is anime for the uninitiated. The more accessible approach may have to do with the fact that this was directed by newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, making his directorial debut.
The fantasy is a beautifully designed work but dramatically it can get a bit languid. The drawings are careful in a cheerfully old fashioned style. It’s not the most fluid animation, but it takes it’s time and it has a sleepy pace that is rather soothing. Complementing this feel is the music. French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel draws on Celtic and folk traditions. Her compositions are an atypical score for an anime film. This is another example of how creativity raises this above the average. The sound effects of insects chirping or raindrops falling have sort of a calming influence that complement the visuals. I admit it’s quite peaceful.
There’s a elegance in the narrative’s simplicity. Part of the story focuses on the missions that these “borrowers” go on to obtain articles like sugar and tissue for the family to use. The point of view of the little people is perfectly captured. There’s beauty in how these characters accomplish their objectives. Arrietty’s father’s use of double stick tape and mittens to scale a wall is quaintly beautiful. But where is the excitement? Not a whole lot happens. There’s a storyline involving a sickly 12 year old boy named Shawn who comes to stay at the place while awaiting heart surgery. His friendship with Arrietty is a dramatic subplot and although it’s poignant, it never develops into anything particularly exciting. Then there’s Hara, an older female caretaker of the home. She provides some conflict, but she ends up becoming more of a nuisance than an actual threat. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the Studio Ghibli cannon. The details are what makes this so captivating. Despite the somewhat listless plot, The Secret World of Arrietty is an enchanting delight.
Postscript: This review refers to the U.S. dubbed version. There’s also a UK interpretation as well. Why different English voices were needed for the U.S. is beyond me.