Friday, February 17, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty: Spread the word!

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.17.12

Those already familiar with Studio Ghibli need not be reminded of Japanese animation impresario Hayao Miyazaki, famed for classics such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro, the latter lending its corpulent title character to the company logo.

When necessity finally prompts Arrietty to reveal herself, Shawn initially is
astonished by her tiny size. But he quickly overcomes his surprise, realizing
that in every respect, Arrietty is much like any other kid his own age. More to
the point, they'll need to work together to defeat a common enemy.
Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are synonymous with lush, painterly work, done in the elegant, hand-drawn manner that we rarely see today. We tend to forget the gorgeous beauty of early Disney animated films — Snow White and Pinocchio, in particular — and Miyazaki and his colleagues are among the very few keeping that style alive.

Vibrantly alive.

The introductory garden setting of The Secret World of Arrietty — Japan’s highest-grossing film of 2010, and only now making its way to our shores — is luxuriously fashioned, with an impressive eye for detail: ladybugs taking flight, droplets of water clinging briefly to leaves before falling earthward. It feels like a magical place, and in a way it is: Any setting that teems with life is deemed magical by Miyazaki.

No surprise, then, that this film opens as a tiny girl, standing perhaps as tall as a cigar, flees from a pursuing cat. The girl reaches the shelter of a nearby house’s basement, safe behind the grill of an air vent; the feline yowls in frustration.

The girl is Arrietty, and this film is Miyazaki’s adaptation of Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s classic, The Borrowers. Miyazaki produced and co-scripted this project — sharing the latter credit with Keiko Niwa — and turned over the director’s chair to protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has worked as an artist/animator on Studio Ghibli films dating backing to 1997’s Princess Mononoke.

The Japanese setting notwithstanding, this film follows Norton’s book reasonably well; since we never leave this isolated house and its garden, it obviously doesn’t matter whether the nearest big city is Tokyo, Toledo or Tunbridge Wells.

Arrietty (voiced in this U.S. version by Bridgit Mendler) lives with her parents — Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler) — in the basement beneath a house owned by the elderly Jessica (Gracie Poletti). Arrietty and her family are “borrowers”: tiny people who collect cast-off items discarded or forgotten by the much larger “beans” (human beings) who mostly remain unaware of their existence. Rare sightings are written off as rumors and urban legends.

Borrowers are careful to avoid taking items that might be missed; the goal is never, ever to be seen. Even so, over time, Pod’s many scavenging missions have allowed his family to live quite comfortably in a fully appointed home with the usual features — bedrooms, kitchen, etc. — all fashioned from re-purposed “big stuff.” The imagination involved — present in Norton’s original book, and utilized just as cleverly here — is enchanting. It’s fun to simply stare at backgrounds, to see how paper clips, matchsticks, thimbles and so much more are utilized.

Miyazaki and Niwa even acknowledge real-world physics: a detail I wouldn’t have expected. Thus, Homily’s tiny teapot pours its contents quite slowly, the process hampered by the surface tension present in droplets of liquid. Nice touch, that.

Arrietty, having reached her teenage years, adores the thrill of searching the outside garden for spices and vegetables; single leaves of the latter keep the family happy for weeks. Her parents insist on caution, but Arrietty is at the age of invulnerability, believing herself capable of outrunning or outwitting any adversary (such as the aforementioned cat).

The dynamic changes with the arrival of a new “bean”: young Shawn (David Henrie), Jessica’s nephew. The boy is sickly and quite weak; he suffers from a heart condition, and has been sent to rest in this house where his mother grew up, years ago. The cast is completed by Hara (Carol Burnett), Jessica’s equally elderly housekeeper, perhaps more of a snoop than she should be.

Arrietty, excited by having received permission to accompany her father on a late-night borrowing expedition, has the bad luck to be seen by Shawn. Pod is greatly concerned; once spotted, borrowers generally must move elsewhere, because beans never can control their curiosity. But Arrietty believes that Shawn bears them no ill will; he even places the sugar cube that she dropped, when spotted, by the exterior grate.

Pod insists that Arrietty ignore this kind gesture, but ... well, kids will be kids.

The resulting dynamic shifts in two directions: Shawn and Arrietty eventually begin to “visit” each other, after a fashion, although the two don’t actually bond until thrown together by a crisis. That’s prompted by Hara, whose apparently doddering behavior turns rather malevolent.

Indeed, Hara becomes an unsettling figure of dread more akin to the bizarre phantasms encountered by the plucky young heroine in Spirited Away. That makes Burnett a rather odd choice for voicing Hara, since Burnett continues to “act” in a manner that suggests this woman is harmlessly nutty, which is far from the case.

Although this story’s second and third acts never become full-blown scary, Yonebayashi maintains consistent levels of gloom and anxiety. We’re constantly aware of Shawn’s illness and frailty, and the degree to which any physical activity seems dangerous; similarly, there’s a strong sense that luck has run out for Arrietty and her family. The overall tone is nervously stressful: great for narrative tension, but somewhat at odds with the film’s many lighter touches.

And while the orchestral score enhances the building drama, the mood is spoiled by some chirpy, sugary-sweet vocals by French singer/songwriter Cécile Corbel. Their use is brief — solely at the film’s beginning and end — but still quite intrusive.

The plot is briefly enhanced by another character: Spiller (Moises Arias), an orphaned “wild child” who serves mostly as a cautionary note. Spiller’s parents vanished years earlier, their fates unknown but — Pod believes — likely related to “bean” interference. But Spiller’s function in this story is pointless; his character serves no purpose and remains underdeveloped.

I also dislike Homily’s frequently panicky behavior, exaggerated to the point of absurdity. This isn’t Poehler’s fault; she merely voices the character according to the way she behaves during the course of the story. Homily’s constant agitation is bad enough; her helplessness is even worse. She becomes a joke: all but useless, and certainly not the sort of resourceful companion that her husband deserves.

Pod, in great contrast, is intelligent, benevolent and thoroughly capable: a great father to Arrietty, and an impressively tolerant husband to Homily. Arnett’s calm, quiet voice is the perfect match to this strong and resourceful leader.

Mendler, a Disney Channel veteran of series such as Good Luck Charlie and Wizards of Waverly Place, is equally well directed as Arrietty. Mendler gives this impetuous but still vigilant girl just the right blend of enthusiasm, mild loftiness — where parents are concerned — and woeful regret, the latter coming into play as Arrietty blames herself for having “spoiled” her family’s previously peaceful existence.

The Secret World of Arrietty is much more approachable, as a story, than Studio Ghibli’s previous effort, 2008’s imaginative but aggressively weird Ponyo. The core premise notwithstanding, it’s very easy to identify with the characters here; they’re (mostly) well conceived and quite vulnerable. We care about them because they deserve happiness: all of them, from Arrietty to Shawn. (Well ... maybe not Hara.)

That said, viewers of all ages are likely to find this film’s conclusion mildly somber, if not sad. I was relieved to remember that Norton eventually wrote four more books about Arrietty and her family.

The melancholy tone notwithstanding, you’ll be charmed by the gorgeous animation: remarkably dimensioned, without the need for 3D glasses. CGI has its own beauty, but nothing quite compares to the allure of Studio Ghibli’s hand-drawn masterpieces.

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