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Movie Review: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’

February 17, 2012

Sometimes a movie is unafraid to just move at its own pace.

In a generation of films that consistently insist on wowing the moviegoer for every frame with booms, bangs and pops, The Secret World of Arrietty is tastefully understated and unafraid of it’s own delicate pace.  That is not to say that the film is boring as “delicately paced” can so frequently imply. Instead it journey of wonderment, fantasy, and seems content to linger in a world that it creates just because it is just so much fun to be there.

It is the story that many of us already know. Based on the 1952 classic, The Borrorwers, by Mary Arton, it tells the tale of a girl named Arrietty, who may be small in stature, but is a giant in personality.  She is of a size comparable to that of a mouse and lives with her family (voice dubbed in the American version by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) in between the walls and under the floorboards of a home in the country. They are undetected by human beans (a mispronunciation of human beings) and borrow, not steal, what they need to survive to make a quaint and pleasant life for themselves.

Arrietty lives in a world filled with missing buttons, cubes of sugar, and roly polies that are treated more like pets than pests.  The smallest, plainest possession in our world becomes one of wonder, creativity and amusement. Velcro, hair pins, and earrings are all tools to comfortably exist. They are no longer objects of luxury. Her world is a secret one, only because of the dangers that await her if the “beans” learn of her existence. She is a girl of great curiosity though, which constantly outweighs her fear. With time, she befriends a sickly boy named Shawn who reacts to her, not with fear, but with intrigue and great respect. A friendship is formed, but not one without risk; every encounter is filled with the possibility of being found out by another “bean” and unfortunately not all people are as decent as the young boy.

Directed by first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, it is not hard to foresee this becoming an instant classic. He brings the simplistic story to life with muted elegance and never goes for the easy pop culture reference or the “PG-13″ joke to keep the adult entertained. Many of the backdrops are filled with detailed and plush nature scenes and nearly, every frame of this film is vibrant and stunning. It is a quiet and contemplative fantasy that is as much about stopping to breathe in the environment, as it is about adventure that will keep the kids on the edge of their seats and their heads cupped in their hands.

Made by Studio Ghibli, the Japanese film studio founded by acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki, it comes from a tradition of films that are consistent in not only their aesthetic innovation, but also their traditional and strong storytelling. Sure, it may not compare to Miyazaki’s portfolio of work that includes My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. These are classics in the making and seem likely to join the canon that Disney started building over 80 years ago.  They are uncomplicated, but they have great heart, warmth and create worlds so beautiful and imaginative that children, and adults alike, easily fall into the fantasy and want to stay and play. Like any great story, these movies are hard to conceptualize ever having been created; they seem to have always just existed. The Secret World of Arietty may pale in comparison to Miyazaki’s grandeur, but it is still a rich installment to a company that consistently makes films that are lovely from the opening titles to the closing credits.

The popularity of the film has been immense overseas; it was the highest grossing Japanese film at the Japanese box office in 2010 and for good reason; I highly doubt any child will leave the theater disappointed. My one complaint is that while Arrietty is fleshed out and impossible to not love, the remaining characters tend to be a little flat and underdeveloped. This was mostly apparent with the sickly boy, Shawn, who is quiet, contemplative and slow-moving due to his illness. His health affects not only his physicality, but for some reason his personality as well. He speaks and moves more like a monk than child, which is all technique to further convey his feebleness, but this trickled into his personality which had no reason to be so consistently lackluster and cold. Even when discovering a world as exciting as Arrietty, he is calm, delicate and reacts only as necessary to further the plot.

This, however, is a complaint for grown ups, hardly one that will affect the demographic this film was made for: children. The flaws hardly outweigh its traditionalism, charm and overall sweetness. It is a film hard to not embrace and in many ways feels fresh, like the renewal of a genre that has been stagnant and just had a breath of fresh air blow past it. Go see it in the theaters and let the subtleties wash over you. The best part might even be that you don’t even get an option to watch it in 3-D.

3 out of 5 stars.


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