'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."

Mom is a worrywart voiced by Amy Poehler, who, as one might expect, provides some of the film's most comic moments with her anxious histrionics. More surprising is the restrained turn from Will Arnett as Arrietty's father. Arnett plays it almost entirely straight here, playing Arrietty's father as a plain-spoken, practical, but loving adventurer. In his comedic roles, his distinctive voice—an instrument like deep pile velvet studded with pure granite gravel—is often the subject of self parody, but here he becomes the solid, comforting influence for a family in danger.

For all the thematic similarities to Miyazaki's work, there's one familiar item missing from Arrietty: magic. Many of the previous Studio Ghibli exports take place in worlds where magic and mysticism—either based around Japanese mythology or from Miyazaki's own mind—are a part of the everyday, from the woodland spirts of My Neighbor Totoro to the dragons, witches, and fantastical alternate universe of Spirited Away. Sure, Arrietty features four-inch-tall people, but apart from their size, the world they exist in is entirely familiar. There are no ghosts, no unfamiliar creatures, no spirit worlds, no moving castles. Just a quaint country house populated by big people, little people, a cat, a crow, and all manner of insects.

But Yonebayashi makes the normal world seem magical by recontextualizing it using the new proportions as seen by the Borrowers. Most of the movie is from their perspective, and he beautifully displays the familiar as seen through different eyes. Normal rooms become massive chambers; a Borrower exiting a hole in the wall into the big house's kitchen is like a normal sized person walking into the immensity of a domed stadium. Pill bugs, rolled up into a protective posture, become balls for play. Postage stamps are wall hangings. Drops of water hold the equivalent of buckets, and move in fascinating new ways. And when the Borrowers have interactions with the Beans, the sound becomes magnified, the ground shakes, and the frame is filled as if by Godzilla. Yonebayashi has no need for magic in this story: Arrietty's secret world is as foreign as Alice's Wonderland.

Still, it's a gentler, less jarring fantasy than a Spirited Away, a fact that may also play into Disney's feeling that this could be a breakthrough title for Japanese animation in the U.S. It's a gentler film all around, really. Yonebayashi is willing to let the story play out more languidly than most animated films. He'll hold the frame after a character exits long enough to watch a ladybug stretch its wings and take flight, or linger on a painterly image of Shawn lying contemplatively in a grassy field. The lush greenery of the yard and the surrounding forest are so vivid that one can almost smell the rich smell of a summer countryside in the theater. All that is nicely balanced by the adventure aspects of the story, which feel legitimately dangerous and provide well-paced contrast the film's more placid moments.

Arrietty is an important film for Studio Ghibli. For an animation house identified so closely with the works of Miyazaki, it demonstrates that there is a depth of talent here that should allow them to continue making distinctive hand-drawn films that carry on his tradition, even after he has stopped making them himself. In that context, whether Disney's strategy to make this an unprecedented success works or not is immaterial. There has long been a loyal audience for Miyazaki films here, and with films like Arrietty, that fanbase can feel confident that they'll be in good hands with a Studio Ghibli film, whether from Miyazaki or another artist onto whom he has passed his craft.

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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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