[NOTE: The Secret World of Arrietty was originally released as Arrietty in Japan in 2010. However, because the version I watched and, technically speaking, am reviewing, is the United States dub released in 2012, I have listed it as a 2012 film)
Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films focus on the duality of two worlds—Chihiro’s reality and the bathhouse’s reality in Spirited Away, the natural and industrial worlds of Princess Mononoke, the Valley and the Toxic Jungle of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, etc.—and The Secret World Of Arrietty, written by Miyazaki and directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is a twist on the motif. Arrietty is a “Borrower,” a person not more than four inches tall who, late at night, takes a few necessities that the “Beans” (more traditionally sized humans) won’t miss, in order to survive. Her world is the same as that of the “Beans,” but as we see everything both from her perpetual worms-eye point-of-view and from the view of the Beans creates an impression that these two, despite coexisting in the same space, live in two different worlds.
Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) lives under the house of Sadako (Gracie Poletti) with her parents, Homily and Pod (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), but when Arrietty is seen by a visiting Bean, Shawn (David Henrie), tradition and fear dictate that they need to move. Regardless, Arrietty and Shawn are drawn to one another by a mutual curiosity, but every attempt Shawn makes to help the Borrowers only makes things worse. The story is based on Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers, British post-World War II novel which here is beautifully rendered more than it is re-appropriated, with much of the political subtext suppressed, but the visual imagination still makes Arrietty a film for both children and adults.
At the heart of this adaptation is the strangely narcissistic romantic foil between Shawn and Arrietty that that the film can never fully wrap itself around, partly feeding Shawn’s need to feel useful and also partly suggesting incidental and inconsequential errors that we should overlook because the story never works up suspense or feels urgent. There are not enough opportunities to explore whether Shawn acts purely out of curiosity or also out of need for self-fulfillment, but Arrietty’s curiosity is depicted too simply to complicate this notion. As such, character drama never penetrates the literally-manifested desire to be held or need a friend, with Arrietty’s vibrant love-for-life only once being juxtaposed with Shawn’s gloomy outlook in a clumsily written conversation. Shawn’s underdevelopment thus makes both he and Arrietty appear as symbols more than full-fledged characters, simplifying some of the complex themes that surround their friendship.
Arrietty could further explore this duality; it is mentioned several times that there may not be many Borrowers still alive, but little is made of it. Shawn’s ending, however, optimistically ambiguous, a feeling he picks up from Arrietty’s cheerful and valiant attitude, so the interplay, although not as deep as it could be, arrives at an appropriate and well-executed ending. This is in large part due to Yonebayashi’s direction, which strikes the perfect balance between light and dark, thanks mostly to his great use of a serene score by Cécile Corbel and regular doses of humor (some more effective than others). With these touches, Arrietty becomes both a sad evocation of losing home and being drained of life but also an optimistic reminder of the friends that are always therefore you and the promise that there is always a future worth working toward. Thus, while a bit unsatisfying for older viewers, Arrietty is a touching tale that sends the right messages.
Regardless, Arrietty more than makes up for its shortcomings with the inherent power of its story and the animation that brings it to life. Studio Ghibli stays with its traditions of precise hand-drawings that give depth to every frame. Arrietty overflows with color, wonderfully green grass bringing life to every outdoor scene and Arrietty’s red dress standing out to signify her unique place as a part of both the Beans’ world and the Borrowers’ world. Arrietty is even ordained early on with a “sword” (actually a thimble) that places her firmly within the Ghibli tradition of brave and empowered heroines, even if she never comes close to actually using it. The glistening texture and influx of details in the dollhouse manifest it as a dream home for Borrowers. All the animation, while perhaps not the most impressive in the Ghibli canon, feels distinct and purposeful.
Perhaps most important, however, is the juxtaposition between Shawn’s view of the world and Arrietty’s. We see Arrietty step out of grates that lead under the house to retrieve a cube of sugar almost half as tall as her, she uses a leaf as an umbrella, squeezes through the crack between the window and the adjacent wall. In one brilliant shot, the camera focuses on Arrietty, standing on a windowsill outside Shawn’s room, displaying the ivy and plant-life in its relative monstrosity, and then pans over to show Shawn, several meters away, sitting up on his bed, visible only because of distance and yet trouncing his surroundings in size. This sequence is followed by a dual-perspective crow-attack that illuminates spatial differences and brings the two worlds together, Arrietty fragile and miniscule despite her fervor and courage, Shawn’s gloomy movement contrasting with his power over both Arrietty and his natural world.
The film is full of small moments like that, physically portraying power differences and emphasizing differences between physical and emotional/mental states that make full use of the magic of animation. The repeated reorientation of space in creative and intelligent ways makes Arrietty more than just a story about friendship and bravery. It also shows how we treat and perceive our world and the little worlds—like a dollhouse—that exist within them, a depiction that can be just as thought-provoking for adults as it is magical for children.