We’ve come to expect so much from Japan’s Studio Ghibli—especially the films directed by Hayao Miyazaki like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle—
that a film that’s merely pleasant, like The Secret World of Arrietty, comes as something of a disappointment. That may not be fair, but it’s understandable.
Miyazaki collaborated on the screenplay for this adaptation of Mary Norton’s much-loved book The Borrowers, and is also credited with “planning,” but director credit goes to Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
The story is slight but charming, presented in a laid-back fashion that immediately distinguishes it from American animated features. Sean is a sickly 12-year-old boy who is sent to the country for complete rest. There he spies a mysterious little person who turns out to be Arrietty, the daughter of two “borrowers” who live in the floorboards under an adjacent house. Arrietty has been taught by her parents to fear (and avoid) human beings, but the independent-minded girl is intrigued with Sean, who doesn’t seem like a monster.
Disney is releasing an American adaptation of the original film (another version, with an entirely different voice cast, was released in the UK), but the visual style and pace remain distinctly Japanese, and the only member of the voice cast who is readily recognizable is Carol Burnett, as a quirky housekeeper. Others on the soundtrack include Amy Poehler and Will Arnett.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a sweet film that retains the inherent fascination of two species of different sizes trying to understand each other’s worlds. I liked it better than the 1997 live-action movie The Borrowers, which relied too much on heavy-handed slapstick. I think this benign adaptation will appeal most to young children, so long as they aren’t hyperactive or steeped in high-energy video games. I hope there is still room for an approach to storytelling that doesn’t try to throttle its audience and allows its tale to unfold in an easygoing manner.