Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Confession: The Secret World of Arrietty (Yonebayashi, 2012) is my introduction to the wonderful world of Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985, the Japanese animation and film studio enjoys a spirited following of fans and critics that is not dissimilar to Pixar’s fervent admirers. It’s not that I had never heard of the beloved studio, but — for whatever reason — I had never got around to seeing Ponyo, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, or any of the other Ghibli features that friends and colleagues have been recommending for quite a while. So it was with excitement and interest that I went to see The Secret World of Arrietty — an animated fantasy film based on Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers. I wasn’t disappointed.
Fourteen-year-old Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) are “little people.” Just taller than a pin needle, they live “beneath the floorboards” in the garden home of some unsuspecting human hosts. One of the few times the little people leave the safety of their tiny abode is when they need to venture out on a mission to gather the scraps necessary for personal necessities. For the sake of integrity, these self-proclaimed “borrowers” never take more than what they need — a sugar cube or a single tissue will often do. And, for their safety, the borrowers’ existence must be kept secret from the humans. But one night when young and earnest Arrietty joins her father, Pod, for a trip above the floorboards, she is noticed by a young boy named Shawn (David Henrie). It marks the beginning of a relationship characterized by unease and curiosity.
What makes The Secret World of Arrietty such a pleasure is how it delights the imagination with a visually- and aurally-crisp change of perspective. The arresting vantage we’re able to inhabit through the little people is a formal thrill that complements well many of the film’s soulful themes relating to empathy. It’s a playful opportunity to see our world through new eyes. In Arrietty’s world, every rain drop, blade of grass, and insect takes on a luscious enormity. A curtain becomes a silky mountain to scale, a rat is now a formidable opponent, and a pin needle is employed as a trusty sword. The boom of thunder, the methodical insistence of clocks, and the “caw-caw” of a belligerent crow are all heightened to the ear. But what I most noticed about the animated world was its pointed emphasis of shadows. Everything — from the terrifying to the mundane to the beautiful — looms large. The effect achieves a sense of presence in this new world that most 3D films fail to capture.
But as we venture with curiosity into this secret world, we also see Arrietty and Shawn gaining new worlds of perspective from an increasingly curious friendship. And, as it turns out, what they learn from one another is no child’s play. Spotted not only by Shawn, but — more to her family’s detriment — by the house maid Hara (Carol Burnett), Arrietty puts her family in grave danger and forces them to move away and find a new home. While Shawn discovers that Arrietty and her family live in constant fear of impending danger, Arrietty finds that Shawn has had a heart condition since birth and, as a result, he must soon undergo an operation with a low success rate. The threat of extinction hovers over the borrowers; death is a potential reality that assaults Shawn’s already fragile state. The little girl’s fighting spirit encourages Shawn to persevere, while Shawn’s humbled desire for companionship — in the wake of his parents’ recent divorce — inspires in Arrietty a growing trust of others. Together, from their unique perspectives, they reinforce in one another a desire for reconciliation and permanence — for home.
Perhaps most importantly, then, The Secret World of Arrietty presents an imaginative fantasy I wouldn’t mind my son entering. For what’s most apparent in the interactions between Arrietty and Shawn is the critical importance of family. Arrietty has a respectful, loving relationship with her parents; she admires their care for her. Meanwhile, Shawn feels the emotional burden of his parents’ divorce; he’s abandoned at a time when he needs them most. Shawn’s admirable desire to refurbish and protect Arrietty’s home seems motivated by his own sense of a broken home. Shawn harnesses the pain and suffering he feels in order to relieve the pain and suffering of the borrowers. In this sense, the “others” — the little people — become Shawn’s family, because they are worth enough to him that he will go great lengths to protect them.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a charming tribute to the inquisitive mind, to the discovery of new perspectives, and to familial love. These virtues are the qualities I want forming my son’s imagination. And mine, too.