“The Secret World of Arrietty” (playing in theaters now, dubbed in English) is a new Studio Ghibli film, and neither Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata directed it. Animation fans know that this can be bad news; such Ghibli films have proved to be embarrassments to the esteemed studio.
But fortunately that’s far from the case here. “Arrietty,” by first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and adapted from Mary Norton’s beloved novel, “The Borrowers,” is unquestionably worthy of the Ghibli name.
This might be because Miyazaki wrote and produced the film, and you can see his fingerprints on the characterizations of place and people. The protagonist, Arrietty, is a typical Miyazaki heroine. She is a teenage female, part of a species called “borrowers,” 4-inch-tall beings that subsist on food and scraps they “borrow” from humans. Like many Ghibli leading ladies, she is strong-willed and capable, but sometimes fails to realize the consequences her actions have for others. Her mother, Homily, is expressive, anxious and outwardly loving. Her father, Pod, is reserved and calm, communicating love and respect to Arrietty through understated encouragement and gentle smiles.
Their home is a meticulously realized nest of beautifully arranged discarded objects from the human world. Miyazaki-like attention to detail is present in every frame — even water pouring from a tiny teapot comes out in droplets that are realistically huge in proportion to the tiny borrowers.
The larger house that the borrowers’ nest is located in belongs to wealthy humans. In contrast to Arrietty, with her warm, cramped home and her tight-knit family, the human boy Shawn has a cold and spacious house with a cold and distant family.
He has a serious illness — potentially a fatal one — but his mother left him in the care of his aunt and her housekeeper. This is just one of the many juxtapositions that make up the film’s subtext, which are far more interesting than its plot.
The film’s story is pretty straightforward. Shawn and Arrietty want to learn about each other, but if the humans discover the borrowers, they must relocate to avoid being captured. The two become friends, but when Arrietty is discovered, she and her family have to leave … and that’s about it.
But the film is not really about plot. It’s about savoring the transient beauty of individual moments, places and people. And it’s also about duality and contradiction. The film shifts between the perspective of the borrowers and humans, and does an effective job of making the same object, person or setting look completely different from the various perspectives.
Arrietty has a forceful personality, and is ready to fight for survival, but only accepts that she has limitations through interaction with the much larger humans. While Shawn is sickly and defeatist, he comes to realize that he is extremely powerful compared to the borrowers.
We also see a distinct contrast between peoples’ intentions (at least their stated intentions) and the consequences of their actions. Arrietty confronts Shawn with the intent of driving him away, but ends up only fueling his curiosity. Shawn attempts to improve Arrietty’s family’s home, but winds up destroying it.
There is also a big gap between what we, as the audience, are led to expect will happen, and what actually ends up happening. That’s not to say there are plot “twists,” (again, it’s not a plot-dominated film) instead, there is a lot of set-up for potential drama that never plays out, or at least never plays out in a very dramatic fashion. The best example is that, early in the film, Arrietty finds a pin, which she carries with her like a sword for the rest of the film. There’s a saying in Hollywood filmmaking, “if you see a gun in the first act, it will be used by the third.” But in the entire film, Arrietty never uses her weapon once. It’s sort of a cliché, the whole “listen to the notes that aren’t being played,” “negative space” kind of thing, but I think in some ways, what doesn’t happen in “Arrietty,” is as important as what does.
“Arrietty,” like most Ghibli films, generally does a decent job in depicting race and class, with only a couple of exceptions. The closest thing to a “bad guy” is the maid, Haru, who is bent on exposing the borrowers. Though she’s not portrayed in an overly villainous manner, it explains her motive (wanting to clear her name after having been accused of losing or taking objects) only briefly, and doesn’t do much to depict her suffering in a sympathetic light. In this dub, the main human, Sho, is inexplicably renamed as Shawn. The film is set in Japan, and the character looks Asian, so why bother changing his name?
There is also a character, Spiller, who veers awfully close to the “noble savage” stereotype. He’s the only borrower in the film other than Arrietty’s family, and he’s unable to speak more than a few words, wears vaguely tribal-looking clothes, and is very capable at climbing and hunting. There are some positive elements to his portrayal, though; Spiller is kind and helpful, and there is no “drama” that results from the differences between him and Arrietty’s family.
There is even strong indication of a budding romance between him and Arrietty.
Overall, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is as good an animated film as we’re likely to see this year. Though its deliberate pace may be jarring to children accustomed to hyperactive American animation, the quiet courage and joy the characters embody in the face of the unknown should resonate with all audiences long after the credits roll.