Not all children’s classics can survive Disney-style adaptation, and for those that can’t, there’s Japan’s Studio Ghibli. The hand-drawn animations of Hayao Miyazaki and his team are slower and more meditative and introverted than the average American kids flick, but also harder to forget.
In past years, Ghibli’s films have alternated between fantasies based on elements of Japanese folklore (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) and adaptations of English-language books (Howl’s Moving Castle). The Secret World of Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers, about a family of 4-inch-tall people who live clandestinely beneath the floorboards of a country house.
What a cute premise, right? But anyone who read the Borrowers series as a child knows that, for all her croon-worthy descriptions of tiny household implements, Norton is more concerned with the many forces that menace mouse-size people with extermination. Young Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), the heir to the Clock family, lives an existence almost as constrained as Anne Frank’s in the attic. So precarious is her hidden race’s survival that her stoic father, Pod (Will Arnett), and her hysteria-prone mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), are the only other Borrowers she’s known.
The Ghibli adaptation, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and cowritten by Miyazaki, appeals directly to kids’ fantasies about living in secret spaces authority figures can’t access (as did Martin Scorsese’s Hugo). The Borrowers’ home, full of repurposed human objects such as trompe l’oeil “windows” (actually postcards), is rendered in loving detail, as are the circuitous paths leading there from the danger zones of human habitation.
The animators make the family’s lair a glowing, jade-green space almost as lush as the house’s garden; you may want to live there, but the film doesn’t gloss over the story’s darker aspects. Even human beings who seem friendly — like the young invalid Shawn (David Henrie), who spots and befriends Arrietty — could carelessly alert those who aren’t so sympathetic, like Hara (Carol Burnett), the irascible housekeeper who wants the Borrowers smoked out.
For the Borrowers, every foray into the big world is tinged with danger, though the film tends to convey this with hints rather than fights and pursuits. For instance, after the impetuous Arrietty — who’s been eager to do her own first “borrowing” — joins her father on an expedition that goes poorly, father and daughter make a pact not to frighten Homily by telling her the truth. No words pass between them, but as they exchange glances, we see Arrietty growing into an adult role before our eyes.
Such moments may be too subtle for some young viewers, who will notice that the film lacks extended action scenes, a malicious villain and a traditional climax. While various external threats pop up, the central conflict is an internal one between Arrietty’s brash will to persevere and Shawn’s resigned acceptance of his condition.
In short, some kids will find the film slow. But anyone who loves miniatures and games of perspective will enjoy exploring its world, where leaves become umbrellas and a stick-pin is a sword. (When Arrietty first lifts the pin, clever sound design — clanks and echoes — indicates its heft.)
Arrietty has an elegiac mood, like a more wan and sedate Toy Story; it celebrates the tiny phantoms that children’s imaginations invent, and acknowledges that they fade with time. Yet the underlying conflicts of such coming-of-age fantasies — eagerness to leave home versus fear of the wide world; hope and energy balanced against despair — don’t lose their relevance, no matter how big you get.