Needless to say, my first trip to the movies in 2012 was… well, less than satisfactory. So, what better way to clean the slate and lift my spirits than with a fresh new animated Disney film. But not just any animated Disney film, a studio Ghibli Disney film, helmed by Japanese visionary Hayao Myazaki, the genius behind such masterpieces as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo… of which I’ve seen none of. So this will be a first for me! Here’s a review of The Secret World of Arrietty.
To begin, 1997’s The Borrowers is a childhood classic of mine. Great cast, excellent sets, and just a lot of fun. While it’s a family film I hold in high regard, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the kind of movie I was begging on my knees to see a remake of. Yeah, if I could pick any nostalgic 90’s flick to see a reimagining of in animation, I would probably go with something like Small Soldiers, or Jumanji. However, I am aware that The Borrowers is the kind of classic tale that has been retold for years, ever since its first rendition as a famous novel by Mary Norton (which I haven’t read, and I call myself an English major), so my perspective on the story may be a bit skewed.
That said, how faithfully adapted this is from the book or the other movies is a bit irrelevant. While The Secret World of Arrietty does share some predominant elements that all renditions of The Borrowers have, the overarching story it tells with those elements turns out to be surprisingly refreshing and original, to the point of feeling like it’s own unique story entirely, which is exactly what a reimagining should do.
The animation on display here pretty much speaks for itself. The amount of detail in each background, and the rich color palette, and how everything is of proportionate size to the borrowers themselves, is unparalleled.
Aside from the animation, probably the biggest thing that sets Arrietty apart from previous Borrowers stories is the tone. The 1997 film that I am so familiar with was very robust, had tons of high stake thrills and chase sequences, and was graced with a good dose of slapstick British comedy. Arrietty however sets itself up from the beginning as a much deeper mood setter. There is a larger emphasis on building the environment the Clock Family live in. During Arrietty’s first borrowing expedition with her father (a traditional beginning for this tale) the focus is less on an impatient girl ready to go out to the world to find adventure and get in trouble and more on the actual moving from place to place and showing in detail this big world and how they traverse it. Sound design also played a big role, and how the tiniest motions are amplified a hundred times.
There is very little time for slapstick or any comedy at all in this rendition. Arrietty’s little brother Pegree is completely absent in this version of the story, so the family dynamic is quite different with her being an only child. Spitter, the once strapping quick-witted street borrower she runs into, is now re-imagined as a rugged, soft-spoken forester. I guess they still manage to have a little fun with the mother being the stay-at-home worrywart capable of falling victim of a panic attack at any given moment.
Oh… and the cat.
The biggest emotional pull of the plot comes from a chance encounter between our heroine and a young bean (the term borrowers use for normal sized humans) named Sean. In this version of the story, Sean is sick with a terminal heart condition (it’s never explicit what exactly is wrong with him, just that it’s a heart problem) and is sent away to his aunt’s place for some care and peace of mind before his operation. What he finds instead is a new found strength inspired by the brave hearts of these little people. While the plot sounds a bit cliché on the surface, it does turn out to be very touching toward the end, and I admired how the creators were able to tell a version of this story where it’s the little people helping the boy instead of usually the other way around. I also appreciate how toward the end of the movie, even though the hardest times for Sean and Arrietty seem to be just ahead of them as credits begin rolling, there is still a believable glimmer of hope that they will both make it through.
If there were some trouble spots in the movie, I’d say the English dubbing and lip-syncing were not that great. Not terrible, but not great either. For a movie that’s only 90-odd minutes, it felt a lot longer, and maybe this is just nostalgic me speaking, but I was expecting a bigger climax.
That said, The Secret World of Arrietty is a perfect example of “less is more.” It lets its gorgeous animation and sharp sound design craft a world that is rich with beauty. It tells a story that does not overstep it’s boundaries and is sweet and tender-hearted without being overzealous or preachy. For a while, I wasn’t sure about seeing a remake to a movie I never asked for, but now, I’m impressed.
And with that, I need to catch up on more of Mr. Myazaki’s films.