To soar through an animated universe fashioned by Studio Ghibli is to be enchanted. For decades now, Hayao Miyazaki and his collaborators have taken traditional coming-of-age fables and elevated them into magical meditations on topics as vast as the sacredness of the environment, the mystical charms of animals, the paramount importance of family and the ugly temptations of greed. Studio Ghibli visions tend to be quieter and far more evocative than their American counterparts. There are exceptions of course (chiefly the works of Pixar) but unlike the majority of American animated films, which set out with punch lines and merchandising in mind, Ghibli’s visions skew more ambitious — stories of self-discovery, of souls at crossroads.
The newest Studio Ghibli vision – directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, conceptualized by Miyazaki (who wrote the screenplay) and translated into English by both Disney and an array of prominent western actors – is The Secret World of Arrietty, a heartwarming adaptation of the beloved Borrowers novels by Mary Norton, which bring to life a hidden world of tiny creatures who take refuge in the walls and nooks of people’s homes. Sustaining themselves by “borrowing” necessary goods from humans, these tiny lodgers have designed a strict set of rules to govern their interaction with taller species: Only borrow what you need, what will not be missed, and avoid detection at all costs. These are undoubtedly rules with a dark history, indicators of past disasters, created to ensure survival. The intrigue in Secret World comes from witnessing a brave member of the youngest generation reject the conventional thinking of her elders.
Her name is Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) and like all young Miyazaki adventurers, she’s a teenager wise beyond her years. She lives inside the floorboards beneath a wardrobe in a rural Japanese home with her tiny mother (Amy Poehler) and father (Will Arnett) – earnest, modest parents who crave nothing more than safety, a spot of tea and a glance out the family’s faux underground window at an illustrated seascape that points to a more promising horizon. Preparing for dinner one evening, mother sighs and wonders aloud whether she’ll ever see the sea in her lifetime. But the odds are against her, for when you’re a Borrower, and any step out into the yard could involve death at the claws of a cat, in the mouth of a bird or on the shoe of a human, one tends to remain at home.
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In stark contrast to the typical sprawling Studio Ghibli storyline, there’s something surprising about Arrietty’s confined existence, which plays out entirely within a house and its front yard. And yet Miyazaki’s team of animators have succeeded in converting such familiar amenities as a storm drain, a kitchen, a curtain or a front stoop into towering, wondrous obstacles that Arrietty must confront and overcome. In an early, dazzling sequence that had viewers squealing in delight at my screening, Arrietty and her father embark on her very first “borrowing” mission — an arduous rite of passage that involves an expedition to the kitchen’s sugar bowl. As father and daughter hop along jagged nails, repel down kitchen counters and carefully improvise a pulley system to extract sugar cubes and transport them to the tiles below, the most commonplace of locales is turned into something dazzling and new.
It is on a mission to procure a square of Kleenex that Arrietty is found out, spotted by a sleeping boy (David Henrie) who has recently moved into the house. Almost immediately, Arrietty’s family shifts into high alert, panicking that this curious human will seek out Arrietty, thereby destroying their hidden existence. But Arrietty isn’t so quick to share their paranoia. Sensing something different about this curious and benevolent (he places a sugar cube next to a storm drain one morning) observer, Arrietty forges a shaky friendship with the creature, learning that the boy has traveled here for a respite prior to life-threatening surgery, and is more or less desperate for a friend. Even as Arrietty’s family packs up their belongings and prepares to flee, these two teenagers find solace in the garden, musing about life, death, family and fears.
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In a film of such restricted horizons, it would be easy to overlook the care with which The Secret World of Arrietty has been assembled. From the mannerisms of the housecat who gradually warms up to the girl to the insects in the garden, the layout of the miniature house and the dangers of the human pantry, there’s an intricacy to Arrietty’s settings, routines and vignettes that is spellbinding. Unlike so many Studio Ghibli escapes, which liberate the viewer from the confines of reality, Arrietty brings the same magic to the mundane, elevating the ordinary confines of everyday life into sumptuous surprises. And while Arrietty lacks the sweep of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (see below), it preserves all the trademark sensitivity to the emotional turmoil of adolescence. While adults will marvel at the lush landscapes and the film’s gutsy handling of such potent issues as xenophobia, terminal illness and ecological decay, there’s little doubt that younger viewers will see straight through to the uncertain hearts at the center of the adventure — to the boy and girl grappling with loneliness, yearning for friendship and accepting the contradictions of a relationship that can never be.