The charmingly simple conceit behind Mary Norton‘s children’s fantasy novel series, “The Borrowers,” is that there are a race of tiny people, no bigger than a stack of quarters or a human thumb, that live underneath your floorboards, sneaking into your home at night to “borrow” things essential to their survival. While this doesn’t explain the mystery of the missing sock, it does give a nifty explanation to misplaced household items, told with a twinkly kind of magic that’s easy to believe in, especially at a time in your life when you too are smaller than most people. The books have been adapted a number of times, including a fairly high profile 1997 theatrical film starring John Goodman, but “The Secret World of Arrietty,” the wry and spirited new animated version from the wizards at Studio Ghibli (distributed in America by Disney with a translation overseen by Pixar), is the most breathlessly told, visually thrilling and emotionally involving yet. Walking out of the theater, you’ll feel at least a few inches shorter.
The movie begins from the point of view of the regular-sized humans – Shawn (voiced by David Henrie in the United States dub) is a young boy who, right before having a serious medical operation, is being sent to live with his Great Aunt Sophie (Carol Burnett) in the country (the fresh air will do him good and all that). While going into the rambling house he stops and notices something flicker through the grass. It appears, to Shawn at least, like a miniature person, but he thinks nothing of it. Of course, it is a micro person, a young girl named Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), who lives with her mother Homily (Amy Poehler) and father Pod (Will Arnett) underneath the house’s foundation. We watch as Arrietty rushes home, past grasshoppers the size of galloping horses, to arrive in time to embark on her first “borrowing.”
It’s this initial sequence, with Arrietty following Pod, wordlessly, through the bowels of the house, as they step across jutting nails and encounter the gulf between kitchen counters, that “The Secret World of Arrietty” first grips you. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Studio Ghibli’s youngest feature director), under the supervision of producer/co-writer Hayao Miyazaki, does a masterful job of zapping you into the action, teleporting you to a world where you can climb a loose wire like a dangling rope and a rat is roughly the size of a small dinosaur (its eyes sinister neon-bright red orbs). The lack of dialogue and excessive sound effects also helps to set the mood, as are little flourishes like the physics of the borrowers’ tea, which globs out of the teakettle, heavy and sticky with excess gravity.
Live-action movies that are saddled with miniature characters, things like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” or “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” or that 1997 ‘Borrowers,’ either lean to heavily on the perspective of the full-sized human characters, or have to goofily appropriate the life of a miniature person through the use of clunky oversized props and occasionally iffy visual effects. In the realm of animation, things are freer, and the results are absolutely staggering: you really do feel like you’re there, without the use of cumbersome 3D glasses. (The most recent equivalent is probably the way Brad Bird staged the rat’s-eye-view sequences in the Miyazaki-influencd “Ratatouille.”) But its not just superficial flash. “The Secret World of Arrietty” is beautiful and stunning to look at, but it’s in the service of the story.
The story, of course, is a tale of friendship as the two main characters – the ailing Shawn and the headstrong Arrietty, which plays out in the typically unhurried pace of most Studio Ghibli joints. The two characters slowly start to understand each other, and there’s a beautiful moment when the two characters share dialogue about their respective mortality. To Arrietty, everything is a threat (including the lumbering, raccoon-tailed housecat), and she could die at any moment. For Shawn, he’s clearly sick and he’s about to go under the knife for a serious operation. The two characters embrace the probability of their respective deaths with the kind of calm and emotional honesty befitting a culture that comfortably embraces the idea that the spirit idea rests alongside the world of the living.
All the hallmarks of a Studio Ghibli production exist in “The Secret World of Arrietty” – there’s the gumdrop-eyed young protagonist, the leisurely pace, the lush, nearly velvety animation and its casual surrealism. One of the most refreshing things about the film is that it never gets bogged down with needlessly complex mythology. There’s no discussion of where the borrowers came from, or what kind of social or cultural hierarchy exists within the borrower world; there aren’t any warring clans or kings and queens. At one point Arrietty comes across Spiller (Moises Arias), a kind of feral borrower, but he’s mostly there to provide minimal comedic relief and the plot-reliant possibility of other clusters of borrowers just beyond the grounds. It’s a relief that he just serves his specific purpose and doesn’t take away much from the central relationship between Shawn and Arrietty.
As the movie progresses, the threats increase, and the film doesn’t try and sugarcoat the improbability of the friendship lasting, particularly after Great Aunt Sophie, who was told stories about little people living in the wall, confirms their existence. Some of the magic gets lost when the focus redirects to the human world in the movie’s third act, but it isn’t enough to lessen or dampen everything that came before, and some of the final story beats are absolutely heartbreaking and tonally pitch-perfect. “The Secret World of Arrietty” might not be given as much love or attention as the more high profile Studio Ghibli titles (like the ones actually directed by Miyazaki), but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as good. [A]