There’s something about a cartoon world that makes a story more lovable, and Japanese production giant Studio Ghibli has stolen hearts once again. In light of his previous works, such as “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away,” screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki had big expectations to live up in “The Secret World of Arrietty.” But Miyazaki effortlessly contributes another timeless and lovable story to the cinematic canon through simple and skilled voice acting, detailed animation, and a light-hearted theme.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” is based on Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers,” a novel about a family of tiny humans who live under the floorboards and borrow small, unimportant items from the humans who live above them. Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), the only child of the Clock family, unintentionally causes trouble when she is seen by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly boy who has come to the house of his great-aunt Jessica (Gracle Poletti) to rest his heart before a surgery. The movie details Shawn and Arrietty’s relationship as they fight to keep the Clock family’s existence secret from the inquisitive maid of the home, Hara (Carol Burnett).
First and foremost, it has to be said that this rendition of “The Borrowers” is downright adorable due to its headstrong protagonist. The fearless and naïve Arrietty jumps from one towering plant to the next, collecting leaves and flowers with which she decorates her tiny room. We soon are introduced to Arrietty’s worrisome mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), and her soft-spoken father, Pod (Will Arnett), who complete the Clock family. Against the wishes of her parents, Arrietty finds herself developing a cautious friendship with Shawn, and despite their obvious differences, Arrietty and Shawn soon find that they are very similar.
The central idea that ties “The Secret World of Arrietty” together is this friendship, and though it makes for a charming children’s movie, older viewers might be skeptical. Even the climactic moments are disappointingly clichéd, such as when Arrietty claims, “Sometimes, you have to fight for the things that are worth fighting for,” and “As long as we have each other to live for, we’ll keep on living.” Once again, two characters from different backgrounds predictably put aside their differences and overcome a larger problem. However, this minor criticism comes with the realization that most audience members aren’t watching to twist their minds or to be introduced to novel thematic material.
The animation works well to create a sense of magic to combat adult nihilism. As the story develops, one impressive aspect of the film is the animation’s careful attention to detail. In one respect, this immaculate detail is an unavoidable consequence of animating the tiny world in which the Clock family lives, as the audience sees everyday objects through a magnifying glass. However, this premise in no way downplays the sense of appreciation created by the bulbous raindrops and towering blades of grass that one experiences when from viewing the world three inches from the ground, and in this way the animation goes a step above simply serving as the backdrop of the storyline.
Also commendable is the voice acting, primarily that of the unparalleled Amy Poehler. Poehler phenomenally conveys Homily’s nervous anxiety as she frets and sighs resignedly throughout the film. When Pod is late to come home one night, Homily tiredly says, “Why is my first thought always that he got eaten by the cat? What’s wrong with me?” Burnett also does a great job of voicing Hara, especially as the she begins to take a central role in the plot with a range of emotions that includes mania and defeat. As the voices of the two most hilarious characters in the movie, Poehler and Burnett are perhaps funniest not when they are speaking but making the small exclamations of excitement, worry, or discouragement that are scattered throughout the film.
Thus, “Arrietty” offers its audience an entertaining story populated by likeable characters, humorous villainy, and an over-arching theme of friendship that will appeal especially to young viewers and perhaps even to old.