“Borrowers take only what they need. ”
I’m not trying to be punny or anything but The Secret World of Arrietty is a “small” movie. It has the same sort of ordinariness and smallness of Ghibli’s other endearing works like My Neighbor Totoro, Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday. Against the explosive backdrop of some of the studio’s more action-oriented and epic films, Arrietty can seem like a footnote in a ledger, yet that is as much a of its charm as the trademark animation which brings its minute world and characters to life. In the big picture of Ghibli’s entire canon, Arrietty may be a little forgettable but it is no less lovely or heartfelt.
Arrietty (The Borrower Arrietty in Japan) is based on children’s novel series called The Borrowers by British author Mary Norton. The book was published mid-20th century, 1952, and its concept has a kind of antique charm to it with the thought of little people dwelling under the floorboards, like fairies at the bottom of the garden, almost a nursery rhyme sort of thing. Hayao Miyazaki, who scripted the film, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi successfully translated the setting of Norton’s book series from England to Japan. The result was a movie which contains many Japanese sensibilities, but also several English ones, such as the living spaces of the humans and the Borrowers being so different. Of course, this fusion of East and West by Studio Ghibli is something they’ve had decades to perfect.
Yonebayashi, who went on to direct When Marnie Was There, holds the record as the youngest person to ever direct a film for Studio Ghibli. I sense his youth made its way into his directorial debut. It’s a simple, straightforward, optimistic, and fresh film in the Ghibli canon but with less of the unexplained and more of a down-to-earth luster, to my mind. It’s the kind of simplistic movie which Miyazaki had to purposefully focus on creating himself in Ponyo.
Arrietty follows a more traditional plot where causation takes priority over the vignette-style storytelling which Hayao Miyazaki is so fond of. Though this film had a new director, the ubiquitous marks of Miyazaki are here in the strong female lead, the pauses between scenes. The movie hits every beat predictably as the story unfolds without surprise, almost straying into the realm of sanctimony at one point or another, with a trite conversation now and then. It’s an uncomplicated movie but it manages to be in the end an appealing bit of entertainment that encourages smiles with its warmth.
The story centers around a boy named Shawn who spends a summer’s week at his mother’s childhood home. He’s suffering from an unspecified heart ailment and has an upcoming surgery so staying at the home under the watch of the maid, Hara, is meant to help him relax.
On his first day at the house, he sees the cat chase something under a bush and when he goes to look closer he catches a glimpse of a tiny girl scuttering through the underbrush. She must be no taller than the length of his thumb. Come to find out, his mother and grandfather believed there were little people living in the house, and they even had a custom dollhouse constructed for them but the little people never touched it. Hara is suspicious and Shawn’s curiosity grows.
The film jumps between Shawn and his caged world of coddling adults and pillow cushions to the world of the Borrowers, the little people. There is indeed a family of them living in the old house: Pod, the father, and his wife Homily, and their teenage daughter, Arrietty.
The burgeoning but apprehensive relationship between Arrietty and Shawn forms the backbone of the narrative. The Borrowers distrust humans and Arrietty’s parents are adamant that she have no contact with humans (called “Beans” by the Borrowers?). Their race has been reduced in numbers equal to their stature because of the curiosity of humans. So in this way, Arrietty is a prisoner of her tiny world just as much as Shawn is a prisoner of his big one, both because of their biology (her size and his heart).
Yet the two protagonists couldn’t be more different. Arrietty is a fighter and an optimist who faces the dangers of the life of a Borrower with hope and glee, believing that her kind hasn’t gone extinct from the face of the Earth. For her, life must go on because she will see that it does. On the other hand, Shawn has all but accepted his fate and his illness, and he lives almost in a constant state of reverie, his days filled with lying in the sun and reading books (I think he’s reading La Divina Commedia, appropriately) waiting for the end. The juxtaposition of their philosophies couldn’t be more black and white.
It is this concern for life and the value of life which I think lies at the foundation of this film. Really, it is the foundation of nearly every Studio Ghibli film. Maybe all of them.
Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s founder, has fair consistently expressed disappointment if not disdain for his own industry, for anime as a whole. I’ve heard him give this reason in an interview: “Because they flaunt despair.” Taking the whole vengeful, violent, dystopian, horrific, bloody, cliquey, tropey, perverse genre of animation as a whole with all of its dredges and heights, he may be at least partially correct. Hey, the statement would be sheer arrogance if he wasn’t responsible for cranking out some of the widest acclaimed anime films ever.
Case in point, I saw Princess Mononoke in theaters last night and it was awesome to see such a huge film on the big screen. Too bad the audience was giggling at every moment of silence and applauding and laughing at violence Miyazaki meant to be shocking in his film. The best thing about Mononoke is not simply that it is the darkest and bloodiest film in the Ghibli canon but that it is the darkest and bloodiest with good reason. It uses that shock as impact for its themes of anger and hatred, treating even its protagonist’s violence as feeding his curse, but it was totally lost on this audience snickering there for the violence as entertainment and completely missing the point of Ashitaka’s inspiration of peace. I shudder to imagine what the pacifistic director would think of those who have such a low view of life since graphic content for them has become a source of glee.
That’s not progressive. We live in dark days, people. This is the generation that idly watches videos of real people killing themselves or being tortured online for entertainment. Take the recent Facebook live streaming of a disabled man being tortured by four people. Did the perpetrators think of that as entertainment? Likewise, I wonder how many viewers thought of it as just the same. But, after all, Mononoke last night was the first movie I’d seen in theaters since voters legalized marijuana here in So-Cal, so maybe that explains the childish guffawing at what is generally a majestic and serious movie.
In The Secret World of Arrietty, as in Princess Mononoke and most Ghibli films in general, there’s a passion for (one may dare say a sanctity of) life and its value. That is Arrietty the character’s biggest contribution to the story. I believe that this central truth could alleviate a lot of the self-inflicted suffering and anxiety of our race. If only we could see the world like this, where every life has immense value and where life is worth living.
To pull on a final Miyazaki quote, he once said:
“I would like to make a film to tell children ‘It’s good to be alive’.”
He has several times over. So happy birthday, you animating genius, you. The world is a brighter place because of the stories you’ve helped to tell, Mr. Miyazaki. I hope your body of work continues to inspire us away from acts of violence and toward mutual understanding, toward seeing the value in every human life.
The 8-bit Review
Arrietty possesses some of the best natural backgrounds in the Ghibli library. These animators have had a lot of experience painting countryside settings with meager, antique houses, so the setting in this film is one which is familiar to them. The level of detail and attention paid is second to none with flecks of chipped paint on rusted grates, beads of dew on leaves, even heaps of trash underneath the house. My favorite Studio Ghibli background of all time actually comes from this film, and it is a breathtaking painting in all of its splendor, on screen for a mere moment: when Shawn looks up at the canopy of a massive tree with the sunlight sparkling down through its branches and leaves.
An animation quirk in this film is portraying the difference between the regular-sized world of the humans and the teeny-tiny realm of the Borrowers. Physics always plays a large role in the realism which Ghibli’s animators can achieve but here in Arrietty the different scales had to have presented a challenge. However, it is one they met and met well. Subtle changes in perspective cause normal rooms to appear foreboding and cavernous. We also see that from the Borrowers’ perspective liquids become viscous gels. It would’ve been easy to miss that opportunity but it really sells the Borrowers’ scale. Arrietty’s micro-physics is a unique and wonderful visual aspect of this film.
The film has a unique score for a Ghibli film composed by French singer and musician Cécile Corbel. It’s a change of pace from the usual Hisaishi fare, less orchestral and more personal. If I had to describe it (which I do considering this is a review), I’d say it sounds like rustic folk. Corbel sings in the soundtrack and the music itself isn’t half bad. It’s far more than that. It’s actually pretty good. It’s just that the way it was utilized in the finished film was a little badder than half bad.
The music is distracting and it plays over dialogue and scenes which seem like they should be silent. It’s understandable since she’s famous. Rustic guitar strums and folkish vocals sometimes overwhelm characters talking to one another or take over the animation, in a way. It sounds cheerful and upbeat like Arrietty herself but if it had been edited into the film better it wouldn’t be such a jarring distance from the scores of Joe Hisaishi.
The film does have great sound design in terms of effects. Big items and huge human beings seem genuinely frightening to Borrowers and therefore the audience, however the Borrowers themselves have sound design which sounds inappropriate given their size. I thought their footsteps and rustling clothes sounded a bit too “big”, too heavy for how small they are. Compared to the ill-placed music, though, these sound effects aren’t the biggest audio complaint.
Plus “Summertime” by pop artist Bridgit Mendler (English version Arrietty voice actress) is atrocious, and I’m not asserting so just because I don’t care for that style of music. It’s forgettable and out of character for the feel of the film. It’s also a cheap summary of it, as if it could be boiled down to flippant summer lovin’:
Cherry Popsicles, sand in my toes
Rolled down windows, hold my hand, hold me close
Pick up your phone, wanna hear your voice again
Like a fresh air like a windblown hair
I like you I don’t care
Why did it have to end?
Summer love with my best friend
(with my best friend)
Good job doing what you do best, Disney: pandering. This movie was not about crushing on some hunk or broad.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After Shawn sees tiny Arrietty in the garden, he’s called inside. Arrietty lives under the house with her parents and it is time for her first borrowing. She accompanies her father to go and get sugar and tissue paper by traveling through the walls and nooks and crannies of the house. They pass an intricate dollhouse with luxurious items perfect for their size, but Arrietty’s father says they mustn’t touch anything lest they raise suspicion of their presence.
Unfortunately, they’re discovered in Shawn’s bedroom as he’s lying wide awake. He looks right at Arrietty and tries to get her to stay, but she and her father leave and she accidentally drops the sugar cube they’d taken.
On a rainy day, Shawn puts the sugar cube and a little note next to the grate where he suspects Arrietty lives. Arrietty is warned by her father to not touch it as it will raise the curiosity of the humans, called Beans, which could be fatal for them. However, Arrietty sneaks up into Shawn’s room alone and gives him back the sugar cube. She speaks to Shawn through the window and asks that he leave her family alone since they don’t need his help. A crow attacks Arrietty at the window sill and Shawn narrowly saves her by cupping her in his hand. Hara rushes in and beats back the bird but she’s now on alert after the incident.
Arrietty escapes from Shawn’s bedroom but is found out by her father on her way back home. He explains that now they have to move out, since the curiosity of the Beans is insatiable. They soon learn that there are indeed other Borrowers still alive elsewhere in the world when Pod returns to his wife and daughter injured, having been helped by Spiller, a wild Borrower.
They begin to make plans to leave until Shawn opens up the floor to find their house and replaces their old kitchen with a new one from the dollhouse, hoping to give them everything they could want. However, the gesture merely terrifies Arrietty’s parents and strengthens their resolve to leave. Shawn’s stunt further aggravates Hara’s suspicion when she finds a tiny teapot in Shawn’s wake.
Later, Arrietty goes to Shawn in the garden to say goodbye and the conversation becomes grave when he suggests that maybe the other Borrowers are gone and everything that is living must die. Arrietty says she chooses to face it head on and will not give up on living. Shawn realizes he’s offended her and apologizes, explaining that he has a heart condition and a pending operation with minimal chance of success, so he’s already decided to face his fate by simply accepting it. He’s given up the will to live, in a sense. Arrietty rebukes him.
Inside the house, Hara tracks down the spot where Shawn found the Borrowers’ house and she uncovers it herself and captures Homily, Arrietty’s mother, stuffing her in a bottle.
Arrietty hears her cries and runs away, while Shawn retreats to his bedroom where Hara locks him up. The lady then calls for pest control to come and capture the other tiny people. Arrietty goes to Shawn to plead for his help and they track down her mother, rescue her, and then Shawn removes any other evidence of the Borrowers living in the house. However, his great aunt discovers that there is freshly brewed tea in the tiny dollhouse teapot and she realizes with delight that the suspicions of her family were correct after all these years.
That night, Arrietty and her family make the long hike across the garden toward a new home. The house cat runs in to Arrietty and she silently communicates to it to go and get Shawn. He and Arrietty meet one last time before she and her family float off in a kettle down a little stream. Shawn gives Arrietty a sugar cube and she gives him her hairclip to remember her by. He explains that he now has the courage to face death and the will to survive because she’s in his heart. Saddened, they both part ways.
In a closing monologue, Shawn explains that he never saw Arrietty again but he did survive the operation and came back to the house the next year and was happy to hear that neighbors reported objects mysteriously going missing in their homes.
We become a part of people’s lives for better or worse. When we inspire others, we become a part of them by influencing the way they think and the choices they make. This is the responsibility of human society and the reason why kindness, self-sacrifice, charity, thinking of others first, etc. are such powerful things. Shawn received the will to survive and not give up on his life because of a profound encounter with Arrietty. Again I say that “Summertime” is a cheap summary for this film and it’s better summed up by Shawn’s words: “My heart is stronger now, because you’re in it.” So one theme is how we can inspire each other to make each other stronger.
Arrietty learns early on from her father that “Borrowers take only what they need.” In the life of a Borrower, everything is about necessity and essentials. Nothing can be wasted nor frivolous. Every action must be made with careful pause and deliberation for it can cost a Borrower their life. For Arrietty, friendship with a human being is a luxury her kind can’t afford. Yet as unnecessary and even dangerous as friendship with Shawn can be and proves to be (since it raises Hara’s suspicions), she and he become better people because they’ve influenced each other. And of course, Homily is rescued because of both Arrietty and Shawn working together. But I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis:
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
I took away from this film that both life and friendship are valuable things. I think we all know that but in the hubbub of circumstances and responsibilities, we may forget them in practical terms.
Family Friendliness: 10/10
This is one of the most harmless movies you could ever see and it’s based on a children’s book. Despite the dangers the Borrowers face, theirs is a world of wonderment and not terror. Even Shawn’s illness is dealt with in an abstract way without detail, so as not to upset the youngest viewers. He merely says there’s something wrong with his heart. And yeah, the villain is a little old lady. Harmless but with a message like water for the thirsty ground of society.
This review is influenced by the Disney dub, so how about the cast they assembled? Bridgit Mendler as Arrietty does a great job of capturing the hopefulness of the character without making her seem aloof, sappy, or inane, given the precarious state of her kind. Arrietty’s voice is that of a warm young woman, not the prating teen or the abject whiner she might’ve been. None of that, thank you very much. As a female lead, she exemplifies strength without being arrogant, rebellious, unpleasant or unloving toward her parents. She’s brave without aggression and I think a lot of that comes from Mendler’s performance.
David Henrie as Shawn doesn’t have too much of an emotional range to cover in this movie. Most of his dialogue is delivered in the slow, dream-like quality of a peaceful young man who has accepted his lot in life. It must have been a challenge to actually give so many lines in this kind of frailty, so I say he did a good job. The only complaint I have about his voice work is the hyper-accented way in which he pronounces Arrietty (“Airee-EHH-tee”), as if he’s suddenly an Italian at a bistro ordering a “cal-ZOHHN-eh” and a “can-OHH-lee”. Maybe he did that thing where you put your fingers together forming a cone.
Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (LEGO Batman!) voice Arrietty’s mother and father, and they stick to their parts as the fretting mom and the man of few words. Good casts, there. But the ultimate has to be Carol Burnett as Hara.
Children’s movies like this often reserve the biggest name actor/actress for the part of the bad guy, and Burnett doesn’t disappoint. She plays a real villain here, not irredeemably evil but Hara isn’t clouded by good intentions like other Ghibli villains. She’s just an old woman who’s selfish enough to hunt down the Borrowers so nobody will think she’s losing it. Burnett wonderfully mutters and mumbles, hmm’s and ahh’s like we’d expect from a paranoid old lady tending to a house with tiny thieves in it.
It’s a slower movie but it doesn’t overburden its fantasy with laborious exposition or endless, world-building meandering, like Tales from Earthsea. Even though we’ve heard this message before, it’s one which is lost amid the tumult of the entertainment world today. Here, you’ll find no shock factor, no hard-eyed BA’s, or breathless action sequences. You’ll only find a precious hour and a half of gentle storytelling, and that’s getting rarer these days.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The Secret World of Arrietty is one of a handful of Studio Ghibli films which I’ve been privileged to see in theaters. On this particular film I remember remarking how pleasant it was to see something so laidback, something which takes its time, compared to all of the bombastic noise of summer blockbusters and popcorn flicks. Watching it was taking a long breath of fresh air after a long and stressful day at the manic modern pace.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a “small” movie but that’s what makes it great.
Aggregated Score: 7.8