Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
2011 was an abysmal year for animation. Aside from Kung Fu Panda 2, there wasn’t a single animated affair screened in the year that elicited more than a “meh” upon exiting the theater (if you were over 10 years-old).
Getting 2012 off to a promising start is The Secret World of Arrietty. Anime fans know that this comes from Studio Ghibli and they’re probably aware that the renowned Hayao Miyazaki isn’t in the director’s chair this time around (he had a hand in the screenplay and kept the producer’s hat on). First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi steps in and whether or not he had a great deal of guidance from Miyazki, the end result is a lovely interpretation of the classic kids novel, The Borrowers. This isn’t the first adaptation of the text but is a rare case of creating excellence despite the lack of originality.
The story concerns a family of little people (no, not dwarves) who live underneath a house and “borrow” bits of things in order to survive; a cube of sugar, a piece of tissue, whatever they might need but something that shouldn’t go noticed when it goes missing. A sick, young boy comes to live in the house and befriends the youngest of them, unsurprisingly named Arrietty. The caretaker of the home is intent on proving the Borrowers are there and her quest eventually threatens the safety of the family. Cue resolution, saying anything more would fall under the category of spoiler alerts.
As for the film itself, first and foremost, the animation style on display is luscious and beautiful. In an age of computer generated films, seeing hand-drawn artwork at such a high level is a visual treat. Sure, it’s not in glorious 3D, but the manner in which the background and foreground interact in all of the Studio Ghibli films creates a sense of depth that’s immersive and almost mesmerizing. The character designs won’t be new to fans of the studio’s previous works (I see a lot of Totoro in the cat for example) but there’s also a superb mix of realism to go along with many exaggerated outbursts, grounding everything in an emotional, almost textual experience.
What sets this film apart from the normal fare, seemingly slapped together around little more than an inkling of an idea and famous voice actors, is the ability to rely on the story to keep audiences engaged. Almost every animated film of last year may have been entertaining overall to the wee ones but there was also the kind of restlessness exhibited that meant they weren’t truly focused and involved; and perhaps the most impressive aspect of this movie was that despite an often methodical pacing, the kids were all glued to the events unfolding on screen.
While there aren’t too many “action” scenes, the film goes into great detail about the way in which the characters go about their lives, and presents a clear path for the problems that need resolving to complete the story. Seeing everyday life reduced in scale for people small enough to live in a dollhouse is a little magical, and kids with their active imaginations understand this. The film doesn’t talk down to them nor does it worry about throwing in “adult” material to keep parents interested. It doesn’t need to and that’s what makes a great story.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a family treat and will surely factor into the best that the animated genre will deliver to American audiences in 2012. While it may not have toys and happy meals to tie in with the production, kids will nonetheless get excited about this fantastical world … and the parents won’t feel they got suckered into another marketing trap along the way. Win/Win.
The Secret World of Arrietty is rated G.