The Secret World of Arrietty

Animated movies for children have of course long been a profitable venture for many movie makers, especially if the film attracts and charms not only the children but the parents who bring them. We now have a Disney film that is in fact an import of sorts…. the Secret World of Arrietty, based on the Japanese Novel whose English title is, loosely, ‘The Borrowers’. Here is the basic storyline of the movie….

“Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), a tiny, but tenacious 14-year-old, lives with her parents (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) in the recesses of a suburban garden home, unbeknownst to the homeowner and her housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Like all little people, Arrietty (AIR-ee-ett-ee) remains hidden from view, except during occasional covert ventures beyond the floorboards to “borrow” scrap supplies like sugar cubes from her human hosts. But when 12-year-old Shawn (David Henrie), a human boy who comes to stay in the home, discovers his mysterious housemate one evening, a secret friendship blossoms. If discovered, their relationship could drive Arrietty’s family from the home and straight into danger.”

The film credits show a lot of Japanese names, including the producer, and it is interesting that the film, though made largely for a Western audience tries to maintain a balance between authenticity when it comes to the Japanese origins and appeal to Westerners. The characters in the film mostly do not look Oriental, but their customs certainly are— they take off their shoes when they enter the house, they drink a lot of tea, they eat rice with chopsticks, but they speak and facially look like Americans, especially in the case of Arrietty herself. But then again the film is done using the ‘Anime’ style of illustration which is so popular in the Orient. In other words, the film is an interesting example of East meets West.

The story is refreshing and interesting– the plight of the tiny Borrowers, in a world of giant ‘Beings’ (i.e human beings). The Borrowers are about the size of Tinkerbell, and so cats, mice, even grasshoppers are threats. It seems that literature has always had a fascination for ‘the wee folk’ whether we are talking about the Lilliputians, the seven dwarfs, the hobbits, or the ‘Borrowers’. The ‘Borrowers’ however are just small human beings, not another species of creature at all, and they live under the noses, houses, and on the resources of the ‘Beings’ whom they try to avoid altogether. Alas, such a code is hard to live by when you are a 14 year old girl full of curiosity.

The story revolves around a sick young man named Sean and Arrietty, whom he tries to befriend and help. It has its touching moments, and there are scenes where the garden flowers are beautiful, but for me, the anime technique leaves the central characters too bland and washed out in color, shape, depth. Had they looked more like the poster (see above), it might have made a bigger impact on me.

Nevertheless, this film is well worth seeing, is certainly family friendly, and could be said to be an exposition of Cat Steven’s old song ‘Wild World’— You know the one that goes….

“O baby, baby it’s a wild world, and its hard to get by just upon a smile girl’. Well yes, especially for the Borrowers, it is a wild and dangerous world, and the fact that they are friendly little beings minding their own business is not enough. You need friends, in this case, friends in high places, big friends. Friends like Sean to protect you from the slings and arrows of all sorts of other big creatures.

This film lasts only an hour and 34 minutes but it seemed longer because it had lots of space, and calm, in it, rather like a visit to a Japanese garden. This is not an action flick, and if your child requires loud noises or distractions every 15 minutes or so, or funny scenes and characters, or dramatic music (the music here is an odd combination of oriental and middle eastern string music) say like the penguin movies or Madagascar, then this is not the film for you.

But if your child can be sucked into a good story with good characters and wonder, then this film is definitely for you. It has style and grace, and yes, something in it for parents to think about as well, namely that the wee people seem far more human and normal and appealing than most of the ‘grown up’ beings. The child is father to the man….or so they say. Or living little is the new living large.

  • L Gallant

    I’d be interested to see this movie, as I read The Borrowers as a child. However, you are wrong in saying the movie is based on a Japanese novel. The Borrowers are a series of English books written by Mary Norton.

  • Sstadler

    I love your writing and the way you share information that no one else would ever think of! Very creative and gifted. It raises my I.Q. (smile) every time I read your columns. I only wish it were that easy! Thank you for another interesting and well written article that is also enlightening.

  • Inchristus

    Thanks for this review.
    This was a good movie. I saw it with my almost-3-yr-old grandson and he was engaged the entire time. I especially appreciated the pace and serene manner in which the storyline unfolded. As you say, it was not an action movie with phrenetic distractions and loud noises, thankfully. The message was interesting and showed the value of courage (Arrietty and her father) and stepping outside one’s comfort zone (a frailty of Arrietty’s mom who later overcame her fears). Interesting that Carol Burnett was the voice-over for the villain who provided grounding for the “Lilliputians’” fear.

  • JM Smith

    Anything put out by Studio Ghibli is phenomenal and worth watching. Dr. Witherington, have you ever seen any of their other films? I would be very interested in your thoughts after watching “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” or “Spirited Away”. They are three of the greatest animated films ever made and all come from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki (who did the screenplay for this one and who founded Studio Ghibli).

  • Max

    Mary Norton’s The Borrowers was made into a 1997 British film starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. In 1998 it was nominated for the title of Best British Film in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards. It was a lot of fun.

  • Benw333

    I must tell you I am bewildered by what you say Max. The credits at the end of the movie gave a Japanese title, and claimed the story was originally Japanese, though I agree the content sure seems more British to me.

  • Max

    I have not seen Arrietty as yet. I was referring to the motion picture of 1997 based on the Mary Norton story mentioned by L Gallant below, who maintained Arrietty was based on The Borrowers. From what you say of the story line it sounds like it is. Perhaps Miyazaki has rewritten the story? I don’t know.

  • Anonymous

    Not only that, but Arrietty is a character in the 1997 movie (and perhaps also the book, I don’t remember).

  • Anonymous

    According to IMDB ( ), the Japanese screenplay is based on the Mary Norton novel.