The colorful and wholly imaginative hand-drawn animation. The delicately conceived and always memorable characters. One-of-a-kind stories with levity and magical realism to spare that refuse to talk down to viewers of any age. The motion pictures that Japanese's Studio Ghibli put out year after year may be less mainstream than U.S.-made Walt Disney Pictures animated releases, but they share a similar adherence to artistic quality. The works of Hayao Miyazaki (2002's "Spirited Away
," 2009's "Ponyo
"), especially, are good enough to endure through the ages, all of them as delightful as they are proudly quirky. As directed by then-36-year-old protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi (with assistance from Gary Rydrstrom for the U.S. version), "The Secret World of Arrietty" holds a lighter, slighter touch than the studio's usual output, as well as a more straightforward plot (based on the novel "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton). Visual beauty and thematic gentility, however, are in abundance. Even a lesser Ghibli feature is one that obviously has come from the heart.
With parents who are too busy to be bothered, young Shô (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) has been sent to stay for a week at his mother's childhood home in the countryside. Cared for by his great aunt Sadako (Keiko Takeshita) and maid Haru (Kirin Kiki) as he awaits a surgery to hopefully mend his ailing heart, Shô hasn't even made it inside the cottage before he first spots a pocket-sized little girl hiding amongst the yard's leafy plants. Her name is Arrietty (Mirai Shida) and she's known as a "borrower," secretly taking small items from the house while living beneath the floorboards with mother Homily (Shinobu Ôtake) and father Pod (Tomokazu Miura). Being seen by the normal-sized humans is a major no-no, but when Shô spots her and her father again as they are picking up suppliesa sugar cube and some tissue paperit puts the lives Arrietty and her family have set up for themselves into jeopardy. Shô only hopes to help them, but for Haru, who is well aware of all the rumors of little people lurking about, she sees it as her chance to finally capture one of them.
Computer-generated animation is dazzling to look at, but if "The Secret World of Arrietty" or, for that matter, the recent Blu-ray release of 1955's "Lady and the Tramp," are any indication, such technological advancements still do not hold a candle to old-fashioned, hand-to-paper animation. One simply cannot attain the same purity and intimacy on a screen as they can in a cell drawing, and that is one reason why the Studio Ghibli films are such a treat these days. Suffice it to say, details are top-notch, from the splintered wood of the floorboards, to the droplets of dew rolling down leaves, to the radiant rural landscapes hinting but rarely revealing the world beyond the trees and fields of Shô's shielded surroundings.
Not quite matching the lookbut coming closeis the screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki (2009's "Ponyo
") and Keiko Niwa (with contributions for the U.S. version by Karey Kirkpatrick). The plot is a familiar one, the tale of "The Borrowers" having been previously adapted to film several prior times, and so there isn't quite the same breadth of freshness and discovery as there is in, say, "Spirited Away
" or 2005's "Howl's Moving Castle." The protagonists of Arrietty and Shô are delightful, their unlikely friendship earnest but bittersweet since the differences between them are forever destined to keep them apart. What Shô does temporarily find in Arrietty, though, is a sense of wonder that has long been missing from his childhood. It's the thing that helps him to know he's going to be all right; he may be sick, but there's nothing more he wants than to live by the end. With Shô's touching transformation playing such an emphatic part in the story, it's with a tinge of disappointment that his parents, never seen, aren't able to be there for him and recognize how important he is to them. Maybe that's the Western audience member in me talking, but a finale with fewer loose ends could have deepened its lasting emotional impact. It would be nice to know that Shô is, indeed, going to be all right.
Whimsical, charming and a little sad, "The Secret World of Arrietty" hasn't the whiz-bang pacing of a "Puss in Boots
," but its narrative is absorbing enough that children should easily be taken by this more deliberate, dreamlike gait. Cecile Corbel's tranquil music score and her performance on "Arrietty's Song" are nothing short of harmonious paradise, lending the mood a fairy-tale richness blurred by the reality of people trying to make their way despite uncertain circumstances. The poignancy of Shô's relationship with Arrietty is that she and her family would be more than welcome to stay and coexist, making their home in a meticulously furnished, fully-working dollhouse that Shô's grandfather once made for his mom, but the loony Haru botches things and the two groups of peoplethe "human beans" and "the borrowers"do not cross paths substantially enough for the invitation to be properly made. Even if they don't see each other again, Arrietty and Shô both catch a glimpse of the propensity for goodness around them. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is about no more than that, but that's enough.