Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
As the end of this Studio Ghibli marathon nears, we begin to get to films I may have had a chance to actually catch in their initial theatrical release, as my movie fandom began developing right around the time The Secret World of Arrietty was released in 2010. Arrietty is in fact the first Studio Ghibli film I managed to see in theaters. However, at the time I saw it, I was not well versed in the Ghibli canon, but I think due to the story and approach of this film, which proves to be one of the more easily accessible films from the get-go, I was able to easily, and immensely, enjoy The Secret World of Arrietty when I originally saw it. But part of the charm of doing a comprehensive marathon like this is the opportunity to see the film again, see if it holds up, and also to see how it might compare with, or fit into the rest of the Studio Ghibli canon, now that I have gone back and caught up with all the great films Ghibli has produced.
Based on the book The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty follows the story of a young girl named Arrietty. Arrietty is the only daughter of Pod and Homily, who are borrowers. Borrowers are four inch tall people who live in larger people’s houses, making adventurous excursions in the night into the big house in order to borrow the things they need to live, like sugar and tissue paper. Arrietty is getting old enough to begin going on these borrowing missions with her father Pod, but on her first excursion, she is seen by the new human boy, Shawn, threatening their safety in the house. Luckily Shawn is a friendly human, but his mean housekeeper Hara has different ideas about the little people who live in the house. Threatened by Hara, and with the help of Shawn, the borrowers must fight for their safety and begin looking elsewhere for a safe place to live.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a wonderful exercise in adventure. It immediately recalls Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and the type of adventure that ensues when you are just a small thing in a large world. The concept itself is a fun exercise, imagining what it would be like to bound through large blades of grass, and climb the kitchen table with a piece of rope. I remember climbing around the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground at Disney World and having a ball. But the film also works as an allegory to the large world around us, and how impossibly large it must feel for kids. As an adult, I can look at it from a different perspective now, but I can remember as a kid feeling like the next street over was so very far away from home, being just a small boy in a large world, out of my element if I stray far enough away from my parents.
What really accentuates this concept throughout the film is the animation and art direction, both of which are stunningly done by the team of animators. Yonebayashi and his team incorporate just enough subtle CGI animation with the beautifully done hand drawn which Ghibli is known for, but what really brings the film alive is the attention to detail. The art direction of the film, which includes all of the little pieces of household items, strewn about the borrowers makeshift home, the way these things are incorporated into the everyday lives of these little people is both brilliant and a lot of fun to see. It all comes together to create a compelling canvas on which a fun, relatively light adventure can unfold.
The film also does a wonderful job or balancing frightening moments with more levity. Overall, the film feels very light and airy and happy, which is a testament to the beautiful animation and deft touch of the pen by Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote the script. Arrietty is made to be a very brave, courageous and outgoing hero, someone who is not overcome by the immense responsibility of her duties, or what it means to remain hidden and detached from the humans. She makes a mistake in being seen, but her sense of adventure and inability to be deterred from exploring the great unknown is admirable, and allows many instances of immense beauty on screen and a delicate, warm relationship which she develops with Shawn. The Secret World of Arrietty really manages to combine the best elements of so many different individual moments and tones throughout the film to make a finished product which is compelling, yet exceedingly easy and enjoyable to sit through.