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The Secret of “Arrrietty”: It’s Brilliant

February 20, 2012

I’m no Japanamaniac—the only Hayao Miyazaki movie I’ve ever seen is Ponyo, which I gather most aficionados don’t consider one of his best—but I know a masterpiece when I see one.  And while I don’t throw that word around willy-nilly, I’d use it to describe The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest product from Japan’s Studio Ghibli to get released in America by Disney.

Based on Mary Norton’s classic British children’s novel The Borrowers, the film—written by Miyazaki and directed by his protegé Hiromasa Yonebayashi—transports the action to Japan, where a family of tiny people live underneath the floor of a house. An ill young boy, Shawn, comes to stay with his aunt at the house and discovers the “borrowers,” so named because they survive by intrepidly helping themselves to small amounts of food and other necessities. He develops an attachment to the daughter, Arrietty, and unwittingly puts them in danger of being exterminated by the nosy housekeeper Hara.

The animation is simple and hand-drawn, elegantly minimalistic, and the quiet, contemplative tone of the film matches its images. The pace may be a bit too slow for younger viewers raised on manic, computer-generated animation, but I saw the film with four children ranging in age from 5 to 15, and each enjoyed it in his or her own way. (Although my 10-year-old daughter, Olive, was a bit creeped out by the boy’s “obsession” with the minuscule Arrietty.)

Disney has smartly recast the voices, using Disney Channel favorites Bridgit Mendler (the appealing star of Good Luck Charlie) as Arrietty, David Henrie (The Wizards of Waverly Place) as Shawn and Moises Arias (Hannah Montana) as Spiller, a native-warrior borrower whom the family encounters later in the film. As the parents, Amy Poehler is a scream as Arrietty’s flibbertigibet mother—her ex-SNL pal Tiny Fey voiced the mom in Ponyo—and her real-life husband Will Arnett uses his naturally gravelly voice to do a sly parody of the severe tone often heard in badly dubbed martial-arts movies. And Carol Burnett (Poehler’s childhood idol) steals the movie as Hara, who’s almost as mean to little people as Annie‘s Miss Hannigan.

In an era when too many animated movies are frenetic attempts to overstimulate attention-challenged children, Arrietty dares to capture kids’ (and adults’) imaginations with a good story, well-told. And isn’t that the true legacy of Walt Disney?

Have you discovered The Secret World of Arrietty? Spill it—post a comment!

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