Monday, February 13, 2012

The Secret World of Arietty

No wonder anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to make a film about the Borrowers for pretty much his whole career, until he finally co-wrote this one a couple years ago. Mary Norton’s children’s books are a perfect match for Miyazaki’s adult-friendly children’s movies, with their strong female lead, their inventive take on living light on Mother Earth (what are Borrowers if not the ultimate recyclers?), and their deep respect for a child’s sensibilities.

But something softened that life force in The Secret World of Arietty, which feels as if it were made by Disney rather than just released by the mouse house here in the U.S.
The painterly animation, directed by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli compatriot Hiromasa Yonebayashi, creates three overlapping worlds: a country cottage, its sun-drenched garden, and a tiny house concealed beneath its floorboards. The big house is a prison for Shawn, a sickly boy sent there to rest, full of empty rooms and dark hallways, while the yard bursts with life and color. So does the miniature house, whose occupants, Arietty Clock and her parents, Homily and Pod, are members of an endangered race of mouse-sized people. (They call themselves Borrowers because of the small things—a dropped pin here, a lump of sugar there—they’re forever ”borrowing” from their human neighbors.)

As Arietty joins her father on his borrowing expeditions and cautiously befriends Shawn, the animation delivers beautifully wrapped little gifts, like the ingenious elevator Pod has constructed out of twine, a nail, and an empty spool of thread. But the resonance of those images is undercut by sappy background music, lumps of on-the-nose dialogue, and the preachy solemnity of the relationship between Arietty and Shawn. This is one of those movies in which one defining trait is exaggerated almost to the point of parody in each character. Homily worries so obsessively she becomes annoying, Pod’s manly competence is almost camp, and Arietty’s earnest naïveté makes her seem far younger than her 14 years.

None of this is likely to bother the preschoolers who are probably the film’s ideal audience, but the rest of us are better off re-watching Spirited Away.

Written for The L Magazine

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