Anime and I parted ways a long time ago.
Way back in my early days, I was a huge fan of Pokemon, Digimon, the Toonami lineup, and other such ’90s childhood staples. In my painful adolescent years, I somehow found solace in spending all my allowance dollars on DVDs of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, and anything Gundam-related that I could get my hands on. My sister was also going through a manga phase at the time, so she was my gateway to Ranma 1/2, InuYasha, and anything CLAMP-related that she could get her hands on. Oh, and I also picked up a subscription to Shonen Jump way back in 2003, when they first started publishing in the States.
But somewhere along the way, my interest waned. I don’t remember why exactly. Maybe I found other things to spend money on, maybe there was nothing left that I wanted to collect, maybe I found other interests, or maybe I just outgrew the hobby. In any case, it’s been ages since I kept any regular tabs on the anime scene.
With all of that said, my old anime DVD collection is still sitting on my shelf. I also keep an eye on the Rebuild of Evangelion saga that’s currently underway. It’s a very rare occasion when I dip my toe back into these waters, but I tend to get a strange kind of nostalgic joy when I do. Even when the anime is something I’ve never seen before, I can’t help regressing to my younger days a little bit and letting my inner child play for a while.
This might be one reason why I got so much enjoyment from The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest film from Studio Ghibli, though I’d like to think it’s also because the film is just that good.
Today’s story begins with Shawn (known as “Sho” in the original Japanese), a lonely son of divorced workaholic parents. He also has a heart condition. The boy is taken to his mother’s old childhood home in the woods for some rest and relaxation before a potentially fatal surgery. Once there, he discovers a family of tiny people living under the house, going out at night to take whatever little easily-missed items they need to survive. One of them is the movie’s namesake and true main character, the young and energetic Arrietty, who of course comes to befriend the young Shawn.
If this premise sounds familiar, then there are two likely reasons why: Either 1) you read “The Borrowers,” the Mary Norton series of fantasy books that the movie was based on, or 2) you saw The Borrowers, the 1997 John Goodman movie adapted from the selfsame books. Though I didn’t see the latter movie, I’ve no doubt that this material was better-suited for Studio Ghibli than the guy who directed Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
For those who’ve never heard of Studio Ghibli… well, first of all, you have no idea what you’ve been missing out on. Secondly, Ghibli is known primarily as the studio of anime grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki. He’s known primarily as the genius behind such anime stories as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Grave of the Fireflies was another Ghibli release, though Miyazaki apparently had nothing to do with that one. All of these are widely considered to be anime classics… though I confess I haven’t gotten around to any of them. Before this, my exposure to Miyazaki and Ghibli had been limited to Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo, though those are all fine movies as well. But I’m getting off the subject.
The point being that even though Miyazaki isn’t technically the director of Arrietty (that honor went to longtime Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi), Miyazaki did have a hand in producing and co-writing the film. The grandmaster’s fingerprints are all over this film, and it shows in some plainly obvious ways.
For starters, anyone who’s remotely familiar with Miyazaki’s work will be unsurprised to find that the movie is strongly environmental. That said, this movie’s delivery of that message is quite different here. In all three of the Miyazaki films that I’ve seen, nature was depicted in terms of mountains, forests, and oceans. With very few exceptions, nature was personified by way of gods, giants, and powerful spirits. Arrietty, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction. In this film, nature is depicted in terms of flowers, leaves, and insects. It’s personified by tiny little elves. Personally, I prefer this approach.
For one thing, the environmental messages of the other movies depended on the invention of nature gods. Characters and concepts had to be created out of whole cloth to sell the metaphor of nature as a great and powerful thing so far beyond the scope of human understanding that we don’t completely realize how much damage we’re doing. Though Arrietty admittedly has the fictional Borrowers, they aren’t really the slightest bit magical or godlike. The movie creates a sense of wonder, not because nature is guarded by some spiritual force, but because it miraculously continues to thrive. Because the Borrowers are so human, they provide a fresh new perspective to help us better see and understand the magic of what’s going on in your own backyard.
This is another reason why I prefer the smaller approach: The miracle of life isn’t limited just to forests or oceans, and it sure as hell isn’t limited just to humans or cities. There are creatures living in every tree, every leaf, and every patch of dirt. Princess Mononoke could only have happened in a great forest, but Arrietty could have happened in any house.
Perhaps most importantly, this smaller approach lends itself beautifully to the construction of the Borrowers as characters. Through this lens, they become a metaphor for everything beautiful in nature that’s so tiny and weak that it might easily be stamped out of existence at any time. They might even be destroyed by accident. Hell, there’s one time when Shawn tries to help the Borrowers and he still ends up doing more harm than good. Yet in spite of that, the Borrowers (like a lot of other things in nature) are so clever, determined, and industrious that they find a way to survive all the same.
The Borrowers themselves are easily this movie’s main attraction, and they’re all fun to watch. It’s actually quite enjoyable to watch all of the clever ways that they navigate through such an enormous and dangerous world. The sound design also does them a lot of favors, as a simple pin audibly takes on the heft and feel of a sword in their hands. Homily is the family’s mother figure, and she provides a bit of comic relief without becoming too annoying. Her husband is named Pod, and he manages to radiate a lot of calmness, love, and authority, despite the fact that he’s not much of a talker. As for their daughter, Arrietty is a joy to watch from start to finish. She’s energetic, she’s smart, she’s brave, she’s curious about the world around her, and she’s eager to help provide for her family as best she can. Yet she still makes mistakes and she’s willing (perhaps much too willing) to make up for them. She’s just a wonderfully constructed character who’s a lot of fun to spend time with.
Then there’s the matter of Shawn, who actually makes for a very interesting character. His isolation is made obvious throughout the movie, so it’s easy to see how he’d be so desperate for a friend. But at the same time, Shawn is acutely aware of his potentially fatal situation, and he approaches the issue with a degree of maturity that’s impressive without becoming wholly unbelievable. His thoughts on loneliness and mortality are very touching, especially when they’re being used to generate chemistry with Arrietty, yet it’s all still simple enough for a child to understand. He’s quite a superbly written character. Too bad his voice actor sucks.
Like many foreign movie dubs, the quality of the voice acting is very uneven. Miyazaki’s films get better dubs than most — likely due to his friendship with a certain John Lasseter — but the dubs of his movies still fall prey to ill-chosen voice actors and performances more driven by existing animation than by narrative sense. Shawn is a particularly awful case in point, as he was voiced by some Disney Channel nobody named David Henrie. Meanwhile, Arrietty and Pod were voiced by Bridgit Mendler (who’s even more of a nobody than Henrie) and Will Arnett, both of whom do surprisingly solid work. However, the British dub of this film includes Saoirse Ronan and Mark Strong in those respective roles. I feel so cheated.
Getting back to the US voice cast, I was quite surprised to find Amy Poehler in the voice cast. I might have thought that Homily would’ve been far more annoying under her watch, but I guess Poehler somehow managed to rein it in. Far more surprising was my discovery that Carol Burnett was in this voice cast. I didn’t even know she was still working. Then again, I later found out that she was in Post Grad, so maybe this isn’t as big a deal as I previously thought.
Burnett voices Hara, a character who truly stinks this movie up. She starts out as Shawn’s nurse, though she ends up as a crazy old woman who’s out to capture the Borrowers just because. She’s a two-dimensional and over-the-top villain among characters who are all far more nuanced, which I considered to be a huge disappointment. In fact, Miyazaki is usually very dependable in his ability to create three-dimensional characters who don’t fit any usual stereotypes. Even Yubaba of Spirited Away was a witch who turned innocent people into pigs, and she still had some redeemable qualities.
But really, Hara is just a symptom of a greater problem: There just isn’t a whole lot to this story. Yes, there’s a whole ton of thematic depth and character development to mull over, but there isn’t much there when you get right down to it in terms of plot. The film is only 94 minutes long, and there really isn’t a lot in terms of narrative complexity or surprising twists. Granted, the plot isn’t as mind-numbingly simplistic as Ponyo, but there are a couple of times when it gets close.
Nevertheless, any points that I take away for the minor storytelling faults, I have to give right back for the visuals. The animation is of Ghibli’s usual sterling quality, but the scenery is gob-smackingly gorgeous even by Miyazaki’s usual standards. I can’t begin to describe the insane amount of detail that went into designing every frame of this movie, so you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
The Secret World of Arrietty is an extremely simple movie in terms of plot, but the environmental themes and the character development are more than deep enough for anyone who’d care to go looking for them. The visuals are jaw-droppingly beautiful from start to finish, and the characters are all a great amount of fun to watch. The voice cast is uneven, but the outstanding performances are enough to make up for the bad ones.
For all of its flaws, I absolutely love this movie. I highly recommend that you go see it, if only so Hollywood might keep making family films of this high caliber.