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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Film Review - The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

The Secret World of Arrietty (2012; Studio Ghibli,
Buena Vista Entertainment)

Mary Norton's the Borrowers was published in 1952. Since then, there have been countless retellings of the story in many forms. Some are less-than-spectacular, others are inspired and clever. One of the best imaginings of this story is Studio Ghibli's the Secret World of Arrietty; a calm, charming little feature that is arguably the best 2D animated feature since Spirited Away.

Like in the original story, the Borrowers, as they call themselves here, have taken up residence under the floors and between the walls of a house occupied by a family. In this case, Arrietty lives with her parents and is coming of age to become a Borrower herself. As she treks off unto her first Borrowing, accompanied by her dad, she lies about her inexperience as she has become somewhat of an adventurer on her own. At this point we see her navigate an intricate series of passageways via driven nails and a clever counter-weight pulley system. Everything seems to be going smoothly until the unthinkable happens: Arrietty is spotted by a boy named Sean (Shō in the Japanese version). After this occurs, Sean, a sickly boy, becomes obsessed with seeing her again and though he means her no harm, it is not meant to be and so her father resolves to move. The remainder of the film follows another resident of the house, a woman who captures one of the Borrows and intends to prove her family is not crazy after their history of supposedly seeing the little people before, but never having sufficient proof, has left them with a sort of stigma. Meanwhile, we begin the venture to find a new home for the Borrowers as the story comes to a close and we see a final few interactions between Sean and Arrietty, who become friends and also work together to assure the small family's safe exodus.

Most of the reviews for Arrietty to to this point have been positive, but some only apprehensively so. While some have called it a movie for “kids” or a “fun little romp” I find a little more in the film than just a quick fix for film-going families. Amidst a genre saturated with uninspired slapstick or noisy animated spectacles, Arrietty is a calm, intelligent, story-driven feature with characters and a nice beginning, middle and end (open as it may be). There is no need for bombast, and no purpose for a lame comic relief character in the form of a jive-talking animal or a chubby sidekick. This is a gentle, peaceful story, and while it has some predictable plot points, it is a story told to us, not thrown at us. In an era where Hollywood assumes all family films should be hyperactive and energetic, this subdued and relaxed tale is a breath of fresh air.

Now, as no film is truly perfect (except for a few that is), Arrietty has a couple problems. First, the character of Sean is never fully realized, and though he is not the main focus of the story, he is Arrietty's connection to the other, larger world. I kept asking questions to myself about this character and almost none of them were truly answered. Another minor complaint is the use of some really cheesy lines at certain points in the film. These predictable lines of dialogue were obviously inserted by the translators as they seem to miss the emotional context of the scene as they really did not know what to say at that point. This happens from time to time in foreign translations though, so it can easily be forgiven. I also have an issue with the Westernization of the film, but that is a personal complaint and I get why they do it, I just do not feel it is necessary in this day and age.

Now, for the positives. The first thing I noticed about this movie, and kept admiring throughout, was the art. The matte paintings for the backgrounds in Arrietty are beautiful representations of remnants of a lost art. In an area of over-produced animated crap, it is so rare to find a 2D animated film that is just a delight to look at. A gallery of hundreds and hundreds of lovely little paintings give this movie a colorful, quaint charm. The characters look good as well, blending into their environment with skillful lighting effects and shadows. Visually, this is a gem.

The soundtrack is also quite good. An Oscar-worthy score fills the atmosphere with soft Celtic melodies. I cannot confirm if this is the original score from the Japanese version or not as I have not yet seen the film in its original form, but as it stands it is perfect. It is inspiring, creating an air of adventurousness and whimsy that fits the tone of the film perfectly.

Though it is not as captivating and unique as Spirited Away, or as epic and entangling as Princess Mononoke, the Secret World of Arrietty is a delightful, fun and inspired film that stands out in its genre. I fear that this film's calm and soft nature may make it sort of a turn-off for our hyperactive and action-seeking youth, but if you are of a family that loves great stories and ones that you can enjoy for years to come, I believe this may be the film for you.

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