'The Secret World of Arrietty': Will Japan's Pixar Have Its Big U.S. Hit?

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The beloved studio behind Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro makes its most ambitious play for American audiences yet with this gentle, well-made adaptation of The Borrowers.

arrietty buckwalter cat 615 disney.jpg

Disney

As the projectors warm up in U.S. theaters today, 1300 of them are being prepped to pass the latest animated release from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli through their lenses. While that's fewer than half the number of screens that will host each of this week's other two wide releases (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War), it's a significant number: Disney, the company responsible for distributing Ghibli releases in the United States, has never opened one of the Studio Ghibli's films on nearly as many screens. While past titles like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke have been blockbusters overseas, they've been modestly successful limited releases here. With The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney appears confident this is the film that will break Studio Ghibli's distinctive style of animation beyond its niche audience.

Those high expectations are the result of a consistent flow of meticulously crafted, memorable that have reached far beyond the world of just fans of Japanese animation, dating back to 1986's Castle in the Sky. Just as with Pixar in the U.S., Studio Ghibli crafts films that are often able to compete on equal footing with live-action cinema, rising above prejudices that animation is just for kids. Its reputation reached its zenith in 2001 with Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which won the top prize at that year's Berlin Film Festival in addition to becoming the first foreign-produced film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Picture. The film also took in $274 million dollars worldwide; big box-office returns and No. 1 openings in Japan have become routine for the studio, particularly for films directed by its co-founder, anime legend Miyazaki.

Yonebayashi has no need for magic in this story: Arrietty's secret world is as foreign as Alice's Wonderland.

Miyazaki didn't direct Arrietty, yet it's impossible not to see his stamp on the film. He produced and co-wrote it, but handed over directorial duties to longtime apprentice Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has worked as an animator on every one of the Miyazaki's projects since Mononoke. The style and the themes remain familiar: gorgeous hand-drawn animation with water-colored landscapes; a strong connection to the natural world; a pacifistic inclination towards resolving conflicts by means other than violence; a strong female protagonist who is also a child.

That protagonist is the titular Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the U.S. version of the movie), the 14-year-old only child of a family of "Borrowers"—a race of four-inch-tall, otherwise human-like beings who live in the walls and under the floorboards of the houses of full-sized "Human Beans," as the Borrowers call them. Her family lives in the country house of an elderly woman named Sadako (Carol Burnett), making their way by taking little things that won't be missed by their larger counterparts: a cube of sugar, a square of tissue, a discarded pin. Expeditions into the cavernous world of the Beans are potentially dangerous excursions—rappelling from countertops to floors, or racing around the shadows while hoping to go unnoticed by the pudgy housecat.

As Arrietty begins, two things are changing in the world of its main character. First, a sickly teenage boy, Shawn (David Henrie), has moved into the house with Aunt Sadako, and has caught a glimpse of Arrietty hiding in the grasses immediately upon his arrival. Secondly, it is time for a rite of passage: her first borrowing. It's a mishap during the latter event that confirms for Shawn that he did indeed see what he thought he did, and makes her family believe they need to leave now that they've been discovered. While Arrietty insists that Shawn means them no harm, her mother chides her, "The children are more vicious than the grownups."

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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