Review: The Secret World of Arrietty (2010-Japan, 2012-US)

The Secret World of Arrietty is the latest release from Studi Ghibli under their distribution deal with Disney.  While it lacks the breadth of a Miyazaki-directed production (this one was directed by long-time Ghibli animator, Hiromasa Yonebiyashi) it still has all the charm and wonder that the master brings to the table.  It’s a terrific children’s film.

Based on Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book, The Borrowers, Arrietty centers around a family of 4″ people who live underneath the house of a woman who is tending to her ailing nephew, Shawn.  They call themselves Borrowers because they pilfer small items from the humans to sustain themselves.  The diminutive daughter, Arriety, is growing up and gets to have her first borrowing, a rite of passage that ends prematurely when Shawn sees her and speaks to her.  This alarms her father, who decides they must move away rather than risk the wrath of the humans.

That’s pretty much the whole story, and it’s a simple one with a simple ending that left me a little dissatisfied.  Still, I think it’s just about right for the younger set.  I found myself more entertained by the sumptuous visuals and the astonishingly good sound design than I was by the story, but there’s enough story to hang your hat on.

Like all Ghibli releases, this one is a technical masterpiece.  I’d almost forgotten how effective cel animation can be on the big screen.  The painted backgrounds really pop with the addition of a few subtle lighting effects.  Unlike digital backgrounds, the painted ones have so much variation throughout that I found my eyes wandering about the frame, soaking up all the gorgeous details.  And the sound design was even better.  I don’t recall ever hearing such a realistic sound palette in an animated feature.  Nothing is flat.  All of the sounds have life, revealing the nature of their surroundings.  And best of all are the sounds of the yard and the forest beyond.  I’ve never been a huge fan of surround sound because most sound mixers use those channels in such a way that they’re distracting.  Not here.  The rain storm is one of those sonic moments that should become a showoff scene for home theater aficionados when this hits blu ray in the states.

Also of note is the quality of the English dub.  This is hands down the best Ghibli dub I’ve ever heard.  I’m not sure what the difference is, but the voices actually fit the characters.  I usually find myself wishing that I could switch to the original Japanese track whenever I see a dubbed version of one of these movies, but in this case I can’t imagine how the Japanese version could be any better.

I also loved the animals in this film.  They stole my heart and clearly revealed Miyazaki’s influence.  I especially liked the Totoro-esque cat who is initially set up as a villain but who turns out quite differently and the cute roly-polys who reminded me of the large creatures in Nausicaa.

I disliked the pop music used in the soundtrack but I guess that sort of thing is inevitable these days.  My understanding is that all of the songs were recorded in different languages for their various releases, so we get to hear them in English here.  The music by Cecile Corbel is decidedly Celtic and while it does charm the socks off the audience, it doesn’t help the viewer to set the time and place of the film at all.  We see Japanese writing, but we also see English writing and clearly European furnishings.  Add to that a dial phone and there’s no telling where or when we are.  Perhaps that’s by design, but the notes I saw from Studio Ghibli place the film in western Tokyo.

With all the charm and beauty of a Miyazaki film, but about half the story, this is an especially good film for very young viewers, and adults will enjoy the scenography as much as a walk in the country on a beautiful spring day.  Recommended.

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