Mark Reviews Movies

The Secret World of Arrietty


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Cast: The voices of Bridgit Mendler, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, David Henrie, Carol Burnett, Moises Arias

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 2/17/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2012

One can't help but be struck by the backgrounds of The Secret World of Arrietty. The film concerns the trials of a family of humanoids that are only a bit larger than a grasshopper as they take shelter under the floorboards of a country house and occasionally venture into the vast world of humans (They call them "human beans" or just "Beans" after, we suppose, one member of their species misheard a person talking about their kind and a long tradition of passing on the mistake) to "borrow" the things that most people take for granted. A single cube of sugar can last the Borrowers, as they call themselves, for weeks; a misplaced pin is just the right size for our heroine to declare that she is now in possession of sword.

There are, then, two worlds here: the world of the Borrowers and the world of the Beans. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and the artists of Studio Ghibli employ the perspective of the tiny heroes of the story to flesh out both worlds, with the miniscule details of smaller objects heightened and the features of the larger (at least from the Borrower's point of view) landscape reduced to Impressionistic simplicity.

Here, the markings on a series of nails, which the protagonist and her father use as a bridge, and notches on the wooden board from which the nails jut out are highlighted to give a sense of scale, as are the decorative touches within the Borrowers' living space, like postage stamps as wall adornments. A string attached to a pulley offers a high-speed express elevator to the ground level of the house, where the red, beady eyes of mice below give our small heroine the chance to boast a feeling of courage that belies her size. The reward for the duo's long trek is an ordinary kitchen that seems utterly extraordinary from where they are standing—cliffs of cupboards and countertops with treasures and essentials for survival hiding in jars.

Meanwhile, the woods surrounding the house are a blur of lineless, vibrant colors. Yonebayashi frames the Beans in such a way that they themselves seem miniscule to their own surroundings. A young sickly boy who wants to befriend the small protagonist is seen from a distance lying in a field or from above unable to sleep in his bed.

This is not to say that the story occurring in the foreground, based on the beloved children's book The Borrowers by Mary Norton (Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa wrote the screenplay), is without merit. It is charmingly straightforward, with the Borrowers setting out on adventures (Mind you, going from one room of the house to another is an adventure for them) and trying to determine the best way to survive in a world that is inherently cruel to folks of their stature. The sense of scale that accompanies nearly every moment of the film helps with the former, while the expansive framing of both Borrower and Bean suggests the feelings of isolation and helplessness with which both struggle and at which the film, so caught up in the episodes of the plot, only hints.

The heroine with the big heart and minimal height is Arrietty (voice of Bridgit Mendler), a Borrower who loves to wander outside to gather flowers and other flora with which to decorate her bedroom. Her mother Homily (voice of Amy Poehler) is anxious to the point of frenzy every time her daughter leaves the safety of the nest and with good reason. A young boy named Shawn (voice of David Henrie) has just moved into the house to spend some tranquil time away from the city in the house where his mother was raised before he goes in for heart surgery; mom and dad are too busy with work to offer their son the care he needs beforehand. Homily doesn't know a thing about the boy. She can handle the Beans she has dealt with for years; this one is a different matter altogether.

Arrietty's father Pod (voice of Will Arnett) admires his daughter's spunk and her resolve to go out on her first "borrowing," in which dad picks up the bare necessities from within the house. When they do, Shawn spots Arrietty as she attempts to grab a single sheet of tissue paper. His mother had told him stories about the little people living under the floorboards, and here one is. He is convinced they can be friends; Arrietty knows that, once a Borrower has been seen by a human, it is vital that the Borrower move to a new location before trouble follows. The trouble in this situation is Shawn's caretaker Hara (voice of Carol Burnett), a curious woman who wants to capture Arrietty and her family just to prove that Borrowers exist.

Arrietty herself is dealing with the question of the existence of Borrowers, as well—namely any other Borrower that isn't a family member. For all that she knows, she is alone in the world, and so is Shawn, who has an entirely different existential crisis with which to deal. He offers a fairly nihilistic view to his new friend, who counters it with that good, old gung-ho spirit.

There isn't much here thematically beyond the obvious growing to understand that which is different (oddly refuted in the end) and the awkward, shoehorned conversation between Arrietty and Shawn about death. The Secret World of Arrietty doesn't need such grander designs, though; the construction and execution of the simple tale are enough.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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