Movie Review: Practical Magic in Small Packages

Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty proves that sometimes simple is best.


Shawn (David Henrie) is a moody 12-year-old boy with a chronic heart problem awaiting an operation. His Aunt Jessica (Gracie Poletti) takes him to her quiet, secluded house for rest prior to his procedure, where he’s looked after by the cantankerous maid Hara (Carol Burnett). Shawn soon finds out that living under the floorboards of the house is a family of tiny people called Borrowers: Homily (Amy Poehler), Pod (Will Arnett) and their teenage daughter Arrietty (Brigit Mendler). The Borrowers take small things that humans “will never miss,” like cubes of sugar or pieces of tissue for their own survival. Once Shawn discovers them, he begins a tentative, forbidden friendship with Arrietty that may spell disaster for Arrietty’s family.

We have to stop meeting like this.

The legendary Hayao Miyazaki tried for 40 years to produce an adaptation of Mary Norton‘s classic fantasy novel The Borrowers. A number of other adaptations, including an American live action release, came out in the meantime. Eventually, novice director Hiromasa Yonebayashi was chosen to make the film, with Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa adapting the screenplay. The film is more than worth the wait, as The Secret World of Arrietty is nothing short of a Studio Ghibli classic and undoubtedly the best film the studio has made since Spirited Away.

Unlike previous Ghibli works, Arrietty is remarkable, refreshingly low-key. There are no epic battles, no monsters and no natural disasters. In fact, there is very little conflict in the film at all, the only tension coming when Hara begins searching for the Borrowers in order to get them out of the house and confirm her own suspicions about their existence. The film’s greatest strength is its gentle nature, allowing the story to unfold organically and easily.

Cat vs. Borrower

The film isn’t about events, but about the way we look at the world and the importance of having others in our lives. Shawn’s heart condition is a character trait, not a plot point, and even Arrietty and the Borrowers’ stature is just something that is, not something that drives the story. In fact, Arrietty acts just like any 14-year-old girl might, eager to see the world and having a slightly rebellious streak tempered with respect for her parents’ concern. There is no real mention of how the Borrowers came to the house or about the origin of their kind, and that allows the characters to shine and become fully formed.

The animation of the film is gorgeous beyond words, proving once and for all that 3D is completely unnecessary for a film to express lifelike realism. Arrietty’s world, or rather our world as seen by someone four inches tall, takes on a depth and magnitude that are both surprising and invigorating. Everyday objects become foreign monuments and even things like drops of rain take on new texture, dripping like honey off of leaves. To Arrietty, a refrigerator is a towering monolith, while a crow is as deadly as a fire-breathing dragon. There is a startlingly clear and fluid look to the animation of Arrietty’s world, contrasted with a slower, more traditional look for the human world. Arrietty is really the main character of the film, and we see almost everything through her point of view.

The back yard becomes a forest kingdom.

Disney has once again secured a number of well-known actors for the supporting roles, as is their custom with Ghibli films, while tapping their seemingly endless reserve of pre-teen and teenage talent for the leads. This isn’t always a good thing. Ponyo, an already relatively slight film, suffered under the inconsistent voice work of leads Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas. However, Bridgit Mendler and David Henrie bring a more mature, solid voice to their characters. Arrietty is never whiny or shrill, and while Shawn is understandably morose and stoic, Henrie makes him a very sympathetic and likable character. 

The rest of the small ensemble is uniformly excellent and well-cast. Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, real-life spouses, have a great chemistry and bring color to both their roles. Homily is excitable and worries about everything, while Pod is a rock-jawed stalwart, but their coupling never seems less than ideal. Carol Burnett makes the most out of her role, her iconic voice almost lost in what may be her most unlikable character yet. Hara is at best disagreeable, at worst a selfish jerk. She thinks nothing of locking a 12-year-old with a potentially fatal heart condition in his room, as long as it means that she can find the Borrowers that much more easily. She’s the closest thing the film has to a villain, but even she has her sympathetic qualities.

Beefy, handsome and only four inches tall.

Arrietty proves once again how much more sophisticated and mature Japanese animation is compared to American animation in many ways. It never takes the easy, emotional route to its story, and it refuses to wrap things up in a tidy way. As in most Ghibli films, more attention is paid to realistic character development than to padding the film with slapstick humor, pop songs or dated cultural references. Arrietty is so grounded, in fact, that it makes its premise seem almost entirely plausible, and it makes it seem like even the smallest childhood fantasies might be real. Simply put, it’s a gorgeous film with a strong, clear soul that has pure universal appeal. 

Rating: 9 out of 10 / A

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and would like to borrow a cup of sugar. <a href="; title="imageimage

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