One of the joys of the animated film The Secret World of Arrietty is how it can make the familiar seem new and extraordinary. In one of the introductory scenes, Arrietty Clock and her father, Pod, are quietly creeping into a home that isn’t theirs, on a mission to steal a block of sugar and tissue paper. It sounds easy and peculiar enough, with the exception of a key detail: the Clocks are no taller than your index finger, making an empty kitchen, and the larger world around them, a place of unpredictable danger. This lengthy, nail biting sequence, my favorite in the film, has no music but lots of ambient sounds and is rich in suspense and discovery.
The main human character is a sick young man with a heart condition who spends some of the film bedridden but finds time to communicate with Arrietty; he’s smitten with her, despite her eyes being the size of a freckle. It makes the forbidden romance in Avatar look downright conventional (at least there, the lovers were roughly the same size).
If you’re familiar with Mary Norton’s classic children’s novel, The Borrowers (which became a live action John Goodman comedy 15 years ago) or remember the 1980’s cartoon show The Littles, you’ll be familiar with how the story and the characters work. The Clock’s world within our world is comfortable and close nit, with just Arrietty and her parents living in a tiny house within the floorboards of a human sized house, where everything from the family cat to falling off a kitchen counter presents a unique threat.
And if you know the name Hayao Miyazaki, you’ll understand why this isn’t like other children’s films, as Japanese animation master Miyazaki (sometimes referred to as “the Japanese Disney”) directed Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and, my favorite, Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki is the executive producer on Arrietty and it offers everything you’d expect from him: the characters are quirky but strikingly realistic in their movement and the same goes for the gorgeous environments, which resemble a painting with rich details of photo-realism.
From used postage stamps being mounted as pictures on the Clock’s wall to a sudden, frightening appearance by a crow, the details are always vivid and clever in their rendering.
This is the US version of the 2010 Japanese film (already a smash hit worldwide and now just being released stateside) and the changes made are acceptable but not always ideal. The American voice cast works well, particularly with Will Arnett’s endearingly gruff and no-nonsense Pod, his real-life wife, Amy Poehler, amusingly manic as Arrietty’s skittish mother and Carol Burnett gleefully voicing the film’s one unlikable role.
However, the way the voices rarely match the movement of the character’s mouths is distracting, akin to watching a bad American dubbing of a Godzilla film. There’s also the odd moment of an English speaking character reading a book back-to-front, with the title on the back cover written in Kanji.
Seeing the original Japanese film is clearly the preferred alternative but give the Disney company credit for recognizing the greatness in both Miyazaki and his traditional style of animation.
This strange, lovely film tells an involving story that will enchant animation and fantasy lovers, as well as children up for something quiet but spellbinding and devoid of CGI busyness. Halfway through the film, an adorable three-year-old girl sitting in my row declared, quite audibly, “I love this movie, Momma.” So did my wife, who had never seen a Miyazaki film before.
The Secret World of Arrietty
★ ★ ★
Rated PG/94 Min.