The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)
One of Ghibli’s best, and that’s saying something.
The Secret World of Arrietty is about a young man with a grave illness who gets shipped to a house in the county so he can rest up before undergoing surgery. According to former residents, legend has it that the estate was, and may still be, home to a family of a different sort: four-inch-tall “borrowers” who live under the floorboards and steal stuff from the pantry. Ridiculous, right? Well not to the current housekeeper who’s so convinced of their existence that she’s made it her life mission to have them exterminated. As for our guest, he doesn’t know what to believe…that is until he sees them with his own eyes. So with their lives no longer secret and the repercussions that may follow, the family under the floorboards is forced into a pickle: uproot their home, or trust in the boy who saw them? As the housekeeper increases her efforts and the borrowers start packing their bags, an unlikely friendship forms, one that could save everything.
Not too long ago, back when I was still reviewing old releases and whatnot, I was really into the Studio Ghibli catalogue…or rather the Hayao Miyazaki catalogue. Went through the whole roster, only reviewed about half of ’em, but as far movie marathons go, it was one for the ages. Not the easiest public admission to make since telling most people that you like anime is on par with them that you own eight cats. “Oh. Well…good for you,” is usually how that response goes. Such is life. I don’t know if I’ve gone through this before, but for everyone who’s convinced that anime’s all big eyes, big breasts, and naughty, naughty tentacles, you, sir/madam, are missing out.
As far as the genre goes, this is what you’d call a gateway drug. It’s the directorial debut by one Hiromasa Yonebayashi, but it’s written by Miyazaki himself. If the name’s not ringing any bells, Hayao Miyazaki is more or less regarded as a god in the world of anime and animation in general. If an anime movie gets a wide release stateside, chances are he’s involved. And while he might not be the one helming this little ditty, it’s nevertheless one of the best things he’s been a part of, especially from a writing standpoint.
During that whole Miyazaki marathon I went through, there were highs and there were lows (and the lows were still pretty high). Castle in the Sky was astonishing, so was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Princess Mononoke will always be a personal favorite; Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro is as awesome as it ever was; I still feel a little embarrassed for liking Ponyo as much as I do; Howl’s Moving Castle would have been worse if it wasn’t so pretty; and the same goes for Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like I said, hell of a marathon. But of all the gems, there were two that shone brightest: Spirited Away (naturally) and My Neighbor Totoro.
Aside from the countless accomplishments you could run down for both those movies, the thing that makes them stand out is how universal they are. Not only do they tell larger-than-life yet true-to-life stories that are fueled by creativity and boundless imagination, they’re the kind of movies that everyone can appreciate and learn from, regardless of age. Whether it’s coping with a family illness or finding the strength to grow up, there’s maturity at the heart of these movies, the kind of which you’re never too young to grow into and never too old to grow out of. They make a tough pill that much easier to swallow, addressing the hardships of life with the bed manner of someone’s who’s been through it before. Movies like Ponyo or Princess Mononoke come close, but since the former is geared more towards a younger audience and the latter has a dude getting his head shot off, it’s hard to call them timeless.
Arrietty, on the other hand, is very much one of those movies.
Not that Spirited Away or Totoro are one-note in their wisdoms by any means, but Arrietty (pronounced interchangeably as “Are-E-et-tee” and “Air-E-et-tee,” in case you were wondering) has some knowledge to drop. Even from the outset it offers some pretty heavy circumstances, like living with a terminal illness, and being blinded by prejudice. Again, stuff that everyone has to deal with at some point. And in turn, that’s what this movie becomes: a parable of sorts about trusting in others, looking past appearances, that home is where you make it, and the healing power of friendship, among other things. The adventure is a blast in its own right, but this is what makes it so much more. Folks, this thing moved me, and if it weren’t for Grave of the Fireflies, I’d say it was the most affecting Ghibli film out there. Damn you, Grave of the Fireflies! Why’d you have to be so good?!
But like every Studio Ghibli effort, it’s also absolutely gorgeous to watch. A lot of the trademark stuff is here like the giant cats and the woodland warriors, all of which are a welcome addition. Although what makes it particularly arresting is the way it takes such an everyday setting and transforms it into something otherworldly, simply by showing it through a smaller set of eyes. There’s so much color and so much vibrancy in Arrietty’s little world – the world we live in – that it makes you wonder how you’ve been missing it for all these years. It’s not quite the orgy of imagination that many Ghibli films put on display, but what it lacks in that facet, it makes up for in detail.
And then there’s voice acting, which is also fantastic. Amy Poehler is perfect as Arrietty’s mother; an atypically and refreshingly straight-laced Will Arnett is great as Arrietty’s father; and Carol Burnett is fantastic (and often hilarious) as the housekeeper. If there’s one aspect of Ghibli movies that tends to be a crap shoot, it’s the voice acting. So, yeah, dodged that bullet.
However, there is the one thing that semi-bugged me about this story: the said housekeeper. In short, the motive’s just not there. Sure, taking care of pests is what she’s paid to do, but this is plain ridiculous. It’s just never really addressed why she’s so hell-bent on capturing these little dudes and offing them like they’re rodents, especially when “grand theft twine” is the most heinous thing on their rap sheets. True, I can’t speak from personal experience on the matter, but I like to think that “KILL!” wouldn’t be my gut reaction if I saw a fun-size human running around my house. It’s not a dealbreaker or anything, but for the prominent role she plays, there ain’t much explanation for why she plays it.
As far as Studio Ghibli films that don’t involve Miyazaki go, I still have some homework to do, but from what I’ve seen so far, I’m sticking to my original statement. I don’t buy too many movies these days, but the ones I find myself acquiring are the ones that I plan on watching with my future kids one day. With that being said, I’m happy to own The Secret World of Arrietty. This is why I worship at the church of Miyazaki, and why I’ll still be devout when I’m just as old as he is. Some stories and some lessons just never get old, no matter how many times you hear ’em. We could all afford to learn a thing or two from these characters, and after all, you gotta love film makers who love strong women.
Now I just have to read The Borrowers already.
PS: A big shout-out is in order to Marc over at Go, See, Talk! for hooking me up a copy of this in the first place! Folks, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it pays to bond over anime. Trust.