A new Studio Ghibli film is always a cause for celebration, arriving as they do only once every year or two and generally being of such quality as to justify an immediate trip to the theater. It’s a little too easy to compare them to Pixar, what with their lengthy string of sometimes transcendentally beautiful films (with Tales From Earthsea being their critical equivalent of Cars 2, apparently), although they of course preceded and inspired the artists at Pixar. They’ve lately been returning the favor, with John Lasseter and Disney ensuring that the last decade’s worth or so of Ghibli films have received tasteful American dubs and releases (even if those dubs have often been a bit overstuffed with Disney Channel vocal talent).
Their latest film, The Secret World Of Arrietty, is not a Miyazaki directorial effort (although he did co-write the screenplay), instead coming under the direction of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the youngest-ever director of a Ghibli film. Like some of their other films (Earthsea, Howl’s Moving Castle), it’s based on a Western young-adult fantasy novel, in this case The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Like the book, it features a family of miniscule human beings (postage stamps are used to decorate their hallways, to give you an idea), who live under the floorboards of a home and periodically “borrow” small items with which to run their own household: a cube of sugar here, a tissue there. Their needs are simple, which allow them to escape notice and hide their thieving as simple forgetfulness on the part of the human “beans” they live underneath.
They, of course, live in constant fear of being discovered; some of them have necessarily been seen here and there in the past, but none of them have ever been caught, until young Arrietty Clock, the daughter of the three-person Borrower household, carelessly lets herself be seen by Shawn, a sickly boy who’s been brought to the Japanese countryside home to rest for a week before he has heart surgery. (Echoes here of My Neighbor Totoro.) As her father Pod tells Arrietty, human curiosity is the most dangerous thing to a Borrower: once they suspect that Borrowers exist, they’ll never stop until they find them, which means that the Clocks will likely need to move if Shawn becomes too inquisitive.
That is by and large the plot of the film; as with many Miyazaki films, there isn’t a real villain here, with the role of antagonist being inhabited late in the film by Shawn’s housekeeper, Hana. Instead, we spend the bulk of the film tracking Arrietty’s daily adventures, as she traipses around the house and its exterior, attempting to find tea leaves for her mother Homily and finally joining her father on her first “real” Borrowing expedition. That expedition is as interesting a heist scene as you’re liable to see outside of a bank robbery film, as we follow the pair throughout their midnight sojourn, largely unaccompanied by music. Yonebayashi feels no particular need to set them off against anyone who might discover them or have them dodging flashlight beams; their adventure throughout a world that is a couple orders of magnitude bigger than they are is enough to keep an audience’s attention where it needs to be.
The subject matter here seems to fit a Japanese sensibility to a T; this is a culture that is imbued with the idea of spirits and sprites (as we’ve seen in, again, My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s most personal work). Arrietty isn’t concerned with being a hard-driving plot; Yonebayashi instead mostly seems to have intended the film to be an examination of the logistics of the life of the little people underfoot. There’s no evil queen to slay or terrible journey to undertake, for better or worse. The result is a film that feels somewhat aimless; despite its G-rating, it’s hard not to imagine young children being somewhat bored with it, unless they’re entirely captivated by the animation.
Luckily, that animation is entirely captivation-worthy; this is one of the most lush worlds you’ll likely have ever seen rendered in traditional animation. Ghibli has always been detail-oriented, with numerous small actions taking place that give a world its lived-in, real feeling, and that approach is tremendously well-suited to displaying the world of incredibly small people. Each frame details the kind of thought that must have gone into each aspect of the Borrowers’ lives, with special consideration given to how they interact with fluids and food. It would’ve been simple to have Arrietty’s mother Homily pour tea like a normal human, but care is given to the notion that their tea cups are big enough for two or three big drops of fluid, and so that’s how it issues forth from their kettle. Even when Pod attempts to solder something, the solder breaks off in droplets as big as his hand.
It’s these kind of details that lead to a sense of almost complete visual rapture; this is an absolutely beautiful film, and beyond the details, its use of color and light is amazing. It’s something of a shame, then, that it doesn’t have a more compelling plot to pair up with those visuals. Not every film needs to have a “Plot Point A, Plot Point B, Complication, Grand Finale” storytelling scheme, of course, but it would’ve been nice to see Arrietty move with just a bit more urgency towards wherever it wished to go. The first hour or so of the film is almost tension-free and likewise void of a strong personality to latch onto. Arrietty herself is a precocious, effusive teen, of the sort that is hard not to like, but many of the rest of the characters in the film are almost defined by their passivity or lack of affect. Pod is taciturn to the point of comedy (although he is well-voiced by Will Arnett when he does say something), Shawn spends much of his time lying in bed, Homily varies between fretting and worrying without much downtime. Even the story of their needing to avoid human observation putts along without much drive until fairly late in the film; the bulk of the running time feels like the movie is stuck in second gear, devoid of an ultimate goal or danger to avoid or something for Arrietty to strive for.
The end result is a film that feels likable but difficult to wholeheartedly love. There’s magic here, to be sure, but it’s a diffuse and somewhat punchless sort of magic, like seeing a beautiful painting through a thick pane of glass. Criticizing a film for being slow-moving can feel like an uncultured statement, but some of the most beloved Ghibli films in the past, like Totoro and Porco Rosso, have similarly breezy plot structures, yet still managed to captivate to a degree that Arrietty seems to struggle with. The best Ghibli films seem to resonate after viewing them and become part of a personal history of movie-watching; it’s easy enough to pull up details of Totoro or Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away from the memory, even years after watching them. There’s some of that spark in The Secret World of Arrietty, but too little to whole-heartedly recommend it.