REVIEW: The Secret World of Arrietty Gets by on Inscrutable Charm
Wispy but sweet as spun sugar, The Secret World of Arrietty feels like a modest but exquisitely trimmed Japanese gift to fans of The Borrowers, British author Mary Norton’s classic children’s books. Having originated in Japan’s Studio Ghibli, home to animated films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the American version of Arrietty is its third translation; when Disney signed on it added a second director in seasoned sound designer Gary Rydstrom (the Japanese version is directed by Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi). And yet the look and feel are unmistakable, adding anime flavor to a story so beloved in the West that the BBC took a crack at it with a live-action version just last year.
In many ways it is a felicitous collaboration: The Japanese are known for their appreciation for all things miniature and scrappy young heroines. The two are combined in 14-year-old Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), a “borrower” living underneath a rural home with her parents, Pod (Will Arnett) and Hominy (Amy Poehler). Borrowers, you soon figure out if you don’t already know, are basically just people who happen to be the size of a full-grown string bean. They lead a parasitic kind of life, though they operate with more stealth and grace than the crow that swoops in on the recalcitrant family cat to peck up a few fleas in the opening scene. The Borrowers need “human beans” to borrow from -- their size makes any other kind of subsistence impossible -- and yet they live in terror of their benefactors.
Instead of instilling fear in Arrietty, constant warnings from her gruff, super-stoical dad and hysterical mother only make her more curious about the young boy who shows up at the house. Shawn (David Henrie) is sickly, and has been sent to the home of his aunt and her housekeeper Hara (an antic Carol Burnett) to convalesce for the summer. Where Arrietty’s parents focus only on her, Shawn’s mother is too wrapped up in work to care for him. But instead of exploring whether a broken-hearted kid might get lonely enough to start seeing tiny redheaded girls rappelling down his bed stand at night, the script (written by Karey Kirkpatrick, it feels very much adapted from the Japanese version, by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa) keeps us closer to the concerns of its title character. Which is to say they make gentle suggestion of a young girl’s romantic awakening and negotiation of the world of big-eyed, giant-handed boys.
Or perhaps that is a bit of a stretch. As someone unfamiliar with the series (outside of this memorably poignant This American Life segment about a young girl’s abiding belief in the existence of Borrowers), much about The Secret Life of Arrietty feels enigmatic, maybe even a little undercooked. Why are the borrowers so spooked about big people? Why is Shawn so unfazed by little ones? What’s the deal with Hara and her grudges? Why is Pod so hardcore about not using dollhouse implements to make life easier? What’s the point of being that small and how did they get that way? That you are compelled to either ignore or try and fill in the answers on your own is a testament to the film’s soothing charms, although occasionally the treacly music cues and trembling moments of wide-eyed apprehension are so twee your tweeth hurt.
It’s a matinee treat for the very little ones, after all, though in its final scenes Arrietty veers into cigarette-and-turtleneck territory. Shawn, who is facing heart surgery, outlines his mopey philosophy of life: “We all have to die,” he says to Arrietty, by way of goodbye. “Sometimes you just have to accept the hand of fate.” Just when you are ready to stop caring whether a story takes shape to match the lushly hand-drawn layers of this enchanting world -- which is to say after an hour or so of half-hearted allusions to human excess, the precious illusions of childhood, possible borrower genocide, and entrenched bigotry -- Shawn’s speech pokes you with another tentative stab at meaning. No doubt those legion of Norton fans in the know will be moved as well as dazzled. With a little more care, the rest of us might have been let in on the secret as well.