The Secret World of Arrietty combines two rich sources that might not seem that compatible. The animated film is an adaptation of British author Mary Norton's 1952 kid-lit classic The Borrowers, about a race of miniature people who live hidden among regular-sized human beings — whom they call "beans" — and feed, clothe, and shelter themselves with items taken secretly from their larger, unknowing neighbors.
Adapting The Borrowers for the screen is Japan's famed Studio Ghibli, an animation house co-founded by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and responsible for films such as his Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Miyazaki co-wrote and helped oversee the production of The Secret World of Arrietty, which is the directorial debut of longtime Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
The film version's modern — and only subtly Japanese — setting is established by its opening, where a young boy travels by car through the city to his grandmother's home in a wooded area where he's to rest with family members while awaiting impending heart surgery. The boy, Shawn (voiced by David Henrie in the U.S. version), has heard stories from his mother of "little people" who live in the house. His grandmother doesn't take this old wive's tale seriously, but the nosy housekeeper Naru (Carol Burnett) believes it and has long wanted to capture one of them.
The little people — a family unit of father Pod (Will Arnett), mother Homily (Amy Poehler), and adolescent daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) — have built their home under the floor boards of a bedroom closet, where Homily frets that they may be the last borrowers left, others of their kind victim to discovery by beans and other dangers (like "Aunt Eggletina," who was apparently eaten by a toad). Pod worries about what will become of Arrietty when he and Homily are no longer around to provide for and protect her.
We first meet the inquisitive, adventurous Arrietty in the front yard, hiding herself beneath a leaf and darting back to the house and through a grate ahead of a charging house cat, running alongside grasshoppers, and delivering her mother a fresh bay leaf that will supply her kitchen for a year — the first of a series of action sequences that are novel, patient, and suspenseful. Even better is Arrietty's first "borrowing" expedition alongside her father, in which the pair go spelunking behind the walls using ladders and bridges made of nails, rappel by fishhook and line from mountainous shelves, and trek across vast deserts of carpet and tile in pursuit of a sugar cube and a paper tissue. (Arrietty also finds a hairpin on the floor, which she keeps, sticking it into her dress and brandishing it like a sword — fitting for a young swashbuckler.)
Both of these sequences occur early in a front-loaded film that settles into a yearning relationship story between the two lonely adolescents, which offers a pathway into some weighty emotional and philosophical territory — Shawn must contemplate death, Arrietty extinction — for an ostensible children's work.
The Secret Life of Arrietty aptly visualizes the book's great pleasure of romanticizing and de-familiarizing mundane objects via contrasting scales and the perspective of little people — a perspective with which the little people in the target audience no doubt identify.
The ultimate result of this fruitful collision of mid-century British children's book and contemporary Japanese animation is more grounded, more naturalistic, and less dazzling than Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli classics, but it retains their hand-crafted, watercolor mise-en-scène, humanistic tone, and quiet respect for an audience's — especially a child audience's — intelligence and capacity for wonder. While slight by the standards of Studio Ghibli's best work, these qualities nonetheless make The Secret World of Arrietty a welcome respite from the noisier, broader, more pop-culture-connected kid-flick style that's mostly taken over modern animated features.
The Secret World of Arrietty