Mary Norton's 1952 children's novel, The Borrowers, describes a family of small people, about 10 centimetres tall, who live beneath the floorboards of an English country house, subsisting on what they surreptitiously take from the oblivious "human beans" that live above them. Neither fairies nor entirely human, they live a friendly, parasitical relationship with the oblivious giants in their midst. It's no surprise that several generations of children have found the characters so appealing.
Previous screen adaptations of the story have included a memorable nineties BBC television version (with Ian Holm) and a dismal movie version with an Anglo-American cast in 1997. Now comes a pretty animated version from Japan, a culture well-versed in miniaturism and stories of hidden entities that live around us. The film, which was already earned $126-million (U.S.) worldwide, comes from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, the company responsible for such animated hits as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Though animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs, the studio's mastermind, Hayao Miyazaki, is a co-writer and the film bears his imprint, from the focus on the gutsy young heroine to the meticulous animation and sound design.
The result is an intriguing hybrid, mixing a Japanese reverence for nature (a raindrop shimmering on a leaf is a visual haiku) with quaint Victorian architecture and a story featuring contemporary, Caucasian-looking Japanese characters speaking in American accents. Somehow, it all works.
The setting is an old mansion outside Tokyo, where an elderly woman (Gracle Poletti) lives with her paranoid housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), who recalls the old stories about little people hiding in the house. Though not extinct, the Borrowers are an endangered species (another Miyazaki favourite theme). The Clock family consists of the reserved, heroic father, Pod (voiced by Will Arnett), the ever-anxious mother, Homily (Amy Poehler) and 14-year-old daughter, Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler). Their life is isolated, but orderly, until a new house guest arrives upstairs. A boy, who is soon to have a heart operation, moves into one of the bedrooms. On the day he arrives, Arietty gets "seen," a terrible event in the Borrowers' world.
Pod and Homily explain that the only solution is to move houses, which involves a precarious and dangerous journey into the world. The boy, Sean (David Henrie), means well, and, like Arrietty, craves for someone his own age to talk to, but the status quo can't be maintained after the suspicious housekeeper calls in the exterminators.
Though not as ambitiously epic in scope as the previous Ghibli hits, The Secret World of Arrietty is sweet fun, an astute match of exquisite style and small content. Among the most delightful sequences is Arrietty's first borrowing adventure, heading up to the human world on a Mission Impossible-style expedition to procure a cube of sugar. Along the way, her father gives Arrietty a tour of an elegant Edwardian dollhouse, built to Borrower scale by a previous generation of human believers.
The voice work here is generally unremarkable (though Burnett's dotty housemaid is shrill) and it was probably an unnecessary expense to have separate English and American casts (directed by Gary Rydstrom, with an English script by Karey Kirkpatrick). Universal in the most basic sense, The Secret World of Arrietty plays with simple dualities of large and small, adult and child, visible and invisible, where neither accents nor nationalities much matter.
The Secret World of Arrietty
- Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Gary Rydstrom
- Written by Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa and Karey Kirkpatrick
- Featuring the voices of Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler
- Classification: PG