Hayao Miyazaki’s latest effort in the Disney-Studio Ghibli partnership, The Secret World of Arrietty, the English language version of a film released in 2010, is a welcome and winning, if somewhat deliberate, entry into the canon of a master.
Based on English author Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, the story follows Arrietty, the 14-year-old daughter of Pod and Homily, the last family of the tiny people who live within the home of a “Bean (the Borrower word for humans),” family. The Borrowers don’t use magic or anything otherworldly; they live like humans, just a much, much smaller version of them (The Borrowers seem to be about three inches tall). Bridgit Mendler, of Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, voices Arrietty, who, as we join the action, is about to go on her first nightly “borrowing” where the little folk take small items that the “Beans” either won’t notice have gone missing, like a single sugar cube, or have lost. Her parents, voiced by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, believe their family may be the last of their kind, and are protective of their daughter, though Pod, the father, is perhaps more ready for his daughter to grow up. At the same time, Shawn, a sickly 10-year-old boy, has been sent to rest and prepare for an important surgery at his mother’s childhood home, which now belongs to his aunt. As he arrives, he sees Arrietty, despite her best attempts to avoid detection. During her borrowing, it becomes clear that Shawn did indeed see her, and suddenly the threat of discovery, and the family having to potentially move on to another home, becomes very real. Also in the home is Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett), the longtime human caretaker of the house, who tends to Shawn’s needs, while also suspecting that there may have been a reason those little things “misplaced” over the years went missing.
The world created by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is remarkable for its familiarity. The scenes set in the Borrower home are not of some enchantingly old-world home set against the modernity of the larger home outside. There’s a gas stove. Pod uses tape, a flashlight and soldering equipment. The path Pod and Arrietty use to get inside the home makes allowances for the human equipment they use to construct it (staples for ladders, or a nail bridge). The performances of the voice actors are winning, by and large. Mendler does a fine job of creating a character who’s growing up and wishes to see more of the world, but who understands the obligations she has to her family, and takes them seriously. That’s balanced by a very realistic friendship with Shawn (fellow Wizards of Waverly Place alum David Henrie), and a desire to keep that alive, and to stay in her own home. Arnett, who’s criticized by some for bringing too much of his Gob Bluth character from Arrested Development to other roles, is well-cast for the stoic Pod. He doesn’t get much comedic to do, but he brings the air of the understanding, patient father to the proceedings. Burnett is also well-cast as Hara, who clearly knows the ins and outs of the home better than anyone.
The pace, it should be noted, is quite deliberate. The running time is 94 minutes, but for some children, especially young ones, it’s likely to be a slog. Poehler’s performance is good, but the script doesn’t offer much comedic variation for her character, other than exasperation or terror. Another Borrower, Spiller, is dressed in furs and said to be from “the forest,” but seems to come from another world altogether when he’s introduced about halfway through. While the Borrowers of the house speak normally, his speech is broken, and his face is painted. It’s as if the creators weren’t totally sure of what type of creatures they were dealing with. The audience also might have a difficult time with Hara’s seeming transformation from kindly old caretaker to Borrower hunter, especially since it’s not entirely clear that she’s suspected what’s been going on.
But Arrietty provides an enjoyable time for both adults and for older children. While the film’s pace is deliberate, the story is also straightforward and easy to follow. It’s not cloying or sappy, and provides as realistic a world as you might find with the subject matter.