Movie Review: The Secret World of Arrietty
The source material is Mary Norton's 1952 children's book The Borrowers, which has been adapted for TV several times and was made into a live-action movie of the same name in 1997. This version, adapted by Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo, Princess Mononoke) and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is much quieter than that one, and features stunning hand-drawn animation and sound design. The story opens with young Shawn (David Henrie) arriving at the suburban home of his aunt Jessica. The boy is frail and has been sent there for rest and relaxation. However, on his arrival he catches a glimpse of a tiny girl in the garden. Soon he befriends these little people, becoming their protector.
Starring: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
If you're tired of all the hoopla surrounding the silent film The Artist, open your ears to The Secret World of Arrietty, which features some of the most arresting, inventive sound design in years. But keep your eyes open as well for its deliciously old-school hand-drawn animation, splashed across the screen like pastel-coloured sidewalk chalk drawings after rain. It's not even in 3-D; it doesn't have to be.
The source material is Mary Norton's 1952 children's book The Borrowers, which has been adapted for TV several times and was made into a live-action movie of the same name in 1997. This version, adapted by Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo, Princess Mononoke) and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is much quieter than that one, which featured a farting bloodhound and John Goodman.
The story opens with young Shawn (David Henrie) arriving at the suburban home of his aunt Jessica. The boy is frail and has been sent there for rest and relaxation. However, on his arrival he catches a glimpse of a tiny girl in the garden.
She is Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), one of a family of 10-centimetre-tall Borrowers who live under the floorboards. (I must pause briefly to point out that they are a disingenuously named race; though they abscond only with what they need, and never in large amounts, they are in fact Takers, not Borrowers.) Her father is the taciturn, stony-faced Pod (Will Arnett). Homily, her mother, is more volatile and voiced by Amy Poehler.
A long scene early on shows Arrietty and her father creeping through the walls of the house on a hazardous expedition to "borrow" some sugar and tissue paper. (It's not often that a shopping trip ends with the line: "I'm happy you made it home.") They use fishhooks and string to rappel down the furniture, and double-sided tape on their hands and feet to climb up again.
You could get lost in the minutiae of how these miniature people go about their work. Yonebayashi focuses on tiny details: a jerry-rigged elevator inside the wall; Arrietty's homemade rucksack. A Borrower teapot delivers liquid in large blobby droplets, held together by surface tension. Even the sugar grains have been scaled up in size.
But more amazing still are the sounds; every movement and object resonates as it would if you were four inches tall. Footsteps echo as though in a cathedral. When someone picks up a sewing pin, it rings like a steel sword. The cube of sugar they liberate sounds like -- well, like a giant cube of sugar.
Trouble arrives when Shawn, a light sleeper, catches sight of Arrietty once again. Though he's clearly not a threat, the Borrower family decides they must move to another house now that a "human bean" knows they exist. Aunt Jessica's dotty housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) poses a clear danger, as she's determined to catch these little people and make them pay for their thieving ways.
The plot is simple. Shawn must earn the trust of Arrietty and try to help her avoid detection by Hara, who turns into quite the villain by film's end. When Pod sprains his ankle while searching for a route for his family's exodus, he's brought home by Spiller (Moises Arias), a Borrower who's more of a Hunter-Gatherer. This scene allows for one of the film's most beautiful images, when Spiller unexpectedly unfurls a tiny glider and flies away (apologies to Clement C. Moore) like the down of a thistle.
The kid-friendly story features Celtic-flavoured music by French singer/harpist Cecile Corbel -- perhaps a little too much, since the lyrics often compete for attention with the dialogue. I must also carp at the decision to release both a (North) American and a British dub of what was originally a Japanese-language film. Surely we could have made do with the voices of Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong and Olivia Colman as the Borrowers.
But these are minor complaints against such a beautiful and plangent piece of work that never loses sight of its tiny characters. Case in point is the scene in which Arrietty is moved to tears, which (like the aforementioned tea) fall from her eyes in absurdly large droplets. You might even shed a few yourself.