The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

13 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ever since I was a child, I was a fan of the stories involving the Borrowers—the little people who live in the walls or under the floors of your house. There was a series of books written by Mary Norton that made them popular, as well as a few film adaptations—including two 3-hour British TV specials and an entertaining 1998 update on the story. And I just love the idea of this secret world that would be In jeopardy if it was found out by human beings (or as the Borrowers call them, “beans”), so when I heard that Studio Ghibli was making a new adaptation (yes, with the great Hayao Miyazaki one of the people behind the production), I was hyped. The child in me was curious and the critic in me was interested in how this new version would turn out. I can now say that this film—entitled “The Secret World of Arrietty”—is the best representation of the Borrowers that I’ve ever seen.

Miyazaki’s company Studio Ghibli has delivered some of the best-looking animated features anybody has ever seen. The visuals stand out as mesmerizing and serve the stories well—see “Princess Mononoke,” for example. There’s such a distinct look and feel to the animation in each of these films and each detail is given special attention. I’ve said the same thing about PIXAR’s computer animation, but that doesn’t make this any less of a compliment, except that the animation is hand-drawn (with occasionally computer help) and thus more complicated than you might think.

One great example of this look in “The Secret World of Arrietty” is the scene in which the three-inch adult Borrower named Pod (voiced by Will Arnett for the US dubbing) takes his 14-year-old daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) on her first trip into the house they live under. Their first stop is the kitchen—with the kitchen being so huge from their point of view, it makes for a threatening environment. Another example is the outside yard of the house, where Arrietty spends a lot of her time. Look at the leaves and the plants next to her as she walks/runs. It looks like another world when it’s really our own.

The story of “The Secret World of Arrietty” is mostly the same as the first “Borrowers” book and has the same basic idea. There is a family of three Borrowers secretly living within a house in the middle of the forest—Pod, his wife Homily (Amy Poehler), and their daughter Arrietty. They have their own home underneath the floorboards and when the “beans” aren’t around, they sneak into the house to “borrow” the essential needs of survival—mind you, it’s never borrowing; it’s stealing, but it wouldn’t make them look good if they were known as the Thieves, right? This family is seemingly the only family of Borrowers in the house. In the old days, there used to be more families until they were discovered by beans and had to move away (it’s also hinted at that others were squashed by the beans). Life is a danger for Borrowers and there’s always a high risk, which is why they have to be extra-careful not to be discovered while they go on their occasional “borrowings.”

The characterizations are direct. Arrietty, just turning 14 years old, is tenacious and courageous. She uses her size as an adventure and delights in discovering more about the world outside her own. Her father Pod, kind of a three-inch Indiana Jones type, is more surly with age. He has had too much adventure in his life and is probably getting too old to borrow. But that doesn’t stop him from smiling when Arrietty fights off a bug (to her, it’s about the size of a canine)—“That’s my girl,” he declares to himself. Homily, however, is a nervous wreck, all the time—always worrying, screaming, shrieking, trembling, nervously rambling on and on, etc.

On Arrietty’s first borrowing in which she “borrows” a sugar cube, she is seen by a sickly human boy named Shawn (David Henrie) and drops the cube. But Shawn doesn’t pose as a threat and kindly leaves the sugar cube next to where he thinks these little people live, with a note saying, “You forgot something.” This increases Arrietty’s curiosity of the outside world and starts to wonder if not all beans are dangerous. But Pod makes it very clear that once Borrowers are seen, they must move away to make sure it doesn’t happen again and that their world is never discovered. Despite this, Arrietty and Shawn do meet each other and form a friendship. However, once the housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) notices strange things happening around the house lately, that’s when the Borrowers’ secret does indeed turn to jeopardy.

The elements that made the Borrowers special are present here—the Borrowers sneaking around avoiding being caught, the interaction and friendship between a Borrower and a bean, and the world that the Borrowers created. There’s a lot of tension in the scenes where they go outside, hoping they aren’t seen by beans. There’s a great, tense scene in the middle in which a crow attacks little Arrietty and Shawn must rescue her. And of course, there’s the cat that sometimes chases her around (you can tell Arrietty is faster and used to it—the cat just misses her and she smiles and waves while taunting, “Nice try”). There are a lot of things that are updated from the original story. For one thing, we see more detail in how these Borrowers move around, instead of just climbing or rappelling down a rope tied to a fishhook. Early on, for example, we see that in order to climb something like a cabinet, they use double-sided tape on their hands and feet to scale it. That’s a very clever bit. There’s also a neat invention with sewing thread and a weight that works as an elevator. The biggest difference from the original book to this film is that there is no climax involving the exterminators threatening to destroy the Borrowers’ home, but I didn’t miss it. What they went with, with Hara capturing Homily and Arrietty and Shawn having to find a way to rescue her, is good enough. I was actually glad that they didn’t have to succumb to a basic action climax, and very surprised too, considering that studios love to end family films in that way. But instead, we have a thoughtful climax and a moving ending that opens more for curiosity. Also, the complex issues present in the book like friendship, bravery, and settling are all present and very effective.

The growing friendship between Arrietty and Shawn is well-handled. It takes a while for Arrietty to finally trust Shawn and go visit him, adding more to the discovery of the outside world and the new curiosity that she has surrounded herself with. When it gets there, though, it’s very touching and she even gives this boy who’s twelve times her size helpful advice about being brave when he reveals that he needs an operation for his heart.

Each character is memorable. In particular, Arrietty is a fun character, Pod is an interesting figure, and there’s another Borrower that they meet later in the movie—a wild-boy Borrower named Spiller (Moises Arias) who tells the family of more Borrowers out in the forest. The voiceover work is nicely done. Bridgit Mendler, of Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie,” brings a fresh friendliness to the role of Arrietty. Will Arnett is suitably rogue as Pod. David Henrie is just OK as the boy—sometimes a line of dialogue rings false, but his speech about the character’s illness is actually heartbreaking. Amy Poehler, voicing Homily, is an absolute hoot—she’s very funny in the way she quickly delivers the nervousness in the scenes in which she’s panicking for her family and especially when she is seen and trapped by the housekeeper. Speaking of which, Carol Burnett as the housekeeper Hara is a lot of fun as well. The way she’s drawn is funny enough (looking more like E.T.’s grandmother), but with Carol Burnett adding several “Hmm’s” to each confused facial expression, it’s downright hilarious.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is a wonderful movie for people of all ages. It’s obviously marketed at children, but adults will most likely enjoy it as well. Even if some children won’t appreciate the complexity of many of the moments in this movie, they at least deserve to choose whether or not they’ll accept them, especially considering the fast-moving, action-packed movies that they watch. Should they decide to watch something a little quieter, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is the movie for them.

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