When he was just starting out as an animator in Japan in the early ’70s, Hayao Miyazaki tripped on Mary Norton’s 1954 novel The Borrowers and thought about adapting it into a feature film. Between then and now, Miyazaki went on to found Studio Ghibli and proceeded to create several of the most captivating animated movies in cinema, including My Neighbor Totoro,Spirited Away, and 2008’s Ponyo.
Now, forty years later, Miyazaki’s vision for Norton’s book has become reality with The Secret World of Arrietty. And to bring it to life, he tapped his long-time key animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi for a shot in the director’s chair.
The story of a family of little, tiny people who secretly live in the crawl space under a house in the Japanese countryside, Arrietty is as beautiful as anything Ghibli has done to date. Full of stunning visuals, whimsical goings-on, and memorable characters, it more than lives up to the studio’s high standard.
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a 13-year old ‘borrower’ who lives with her mom and dad (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett); they rely on nightly scurryings into the big-people house for their supplies. Of course, when a single bay leaf is enough to last for an entire year, it’s not like anything will be missed.
The big people of the house have long had their suspicions, but it’s only when young, sickly Shawn (David Henrie) comes to visit and sees Arrietty with his own eyes, that the ‘little’ secret is discovered.
Miyazaki’s adapted screenplay (he also served as executive producer) strikes the perfect balance of humor, drama, and fantasy. The characters range from the sublime (Arnett is brilliantly understated as Pod) to the ridiculous (Poehler is delightfully off her rocker, and Carol Burnett is a hoot as the house maid). And there’s real chemistry between Arrietty and Shawn (apparently chemistry is possible with hand-drawn animated characters).
Ghibli’s trademark, though, is the incredible artwork, and the tradition continues here– in spades. From a fleeting glimpse of a ladybug scurrying along a leaf to a field full of stunning, vibrant flowers, the visuals of Arrietty are worth the price of admission all by themselves. It’s almost as if the animators are determined to make each and every cel worthy of being framed as art.
If the 71-year old Miyazaki is planning on handing over the reins of Studio Ghibli in the near future, Arrietty is proof positive that he’ll be leaving it in very good hands.