Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Secret's Out - "The Secret World of Arrietty" Review

To welcome the embrace of the animated universe of Studio Ghibli, creators of such films as Spirited Away and Ponyo, is to be culturally bewitched.  Under the focused vision of Hayao Miyazaki and team, Studio Ghibli have proven themselves to be the new torch-bearer of hand-drawn animation and of the modern fable; addressing such important topics as the value of family, preservation of the environment, and the destructive nature of greed.

Studio Ghibli's fantasies are truly the product of Japanese cultural tradition, often being far more quiet and soulful at their base than the modern American animated film.  In their newest film, The Secret World of Arrietty, gone are the quick punchlines, meta-references, and directed marketing ploy attempts that dominate children's cinema and in its stead remains the heartfelt coming-of-age tale of a young girl named Arrietty.

Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is no princess or savior to the world she inhabits, in fact as far as she knows she might be one of the last of her kind.  Arrietty is a borrower, a tiny humanlike creature who takes refuge in the walls of human architecture.  Arrietty, at three inches in height, lives with her mother (Amy Poehler) and father (Will Arnett), two modest adults who only want the best for their impetuous daughter, in a small home at the base of a remote human home.  The family sustains itself by "borrowing" from the humans; that is, they steal from the family just enough so that they'll never be noticed and their survival is assured.

What makes The Secret World of Arrietty engaging is the journey Arrietty takes as she begins to question the conventional wisdom of her parents and to look at her world in a whole new way.  This conventional wisdom is the basis for the borrowers' safety in a world where one misstep can garner the unwanted attention of a vicious cockroach or even worse the curious and hungry house cat.

Arrietty's safety is never assured, something that is never more apparent than when her father takes her out on her first "borrowing."  The meticulous detail of the precautions he has taken to perfecting this routine demonstrates his seriousness and the consequences that failure imply more than any dialogue could express.  Arrietty is excited about her first exploration outside her home, and rightfully so, but her curiosity quickly overcomes her when she gets seen by a young boy named Shawn (David Henrie).

Before she can fully anticipate the consequences of her actions, Arrietty has struck up a friendship with Shawn, who is attempting to relax before going into heart surgery.  This semi-romance begins to garner unwanted attention to Arrietty and her family from the other older humans that live with Shawn.  There is no direct villain of the film, just several conflicting, almost comical, clashes.  The real adversary for Arrietty and her family is the nature of their minuscule existence and all of the perils it entails.

While the story of Arrietty and the conflicts that arise are always engaging, it is the beautiful animation that is the most arresting.  The environments are never vapid and clearly reflect a meticulous level of detail.  From the rolling lawns full of vibrant flora and fauna to the dark and mysterious passages between the walls, every image in Arrietty acts a beautiful work of nostalgia fueled art.

It is the little details that count the most in The Secret World of Arrietty, as it transports its audience back to their childish curiosity over the intricacy of objects.  Every aspect of the borrower's lives is fascinating from start to finish; seeing how Arrietty's family has repurposed everyday household items to fit their lives never loses its charm.  This play on perspective is reinforced even stronger in the sound design as the simple actions of a sick boy thunder over Arrietty like a giant's would.  These effects never draw attention to themselves and slowly draw the audience into the world of Arrietty, allowing for a childlike sense of discovery that will keep even adults transfixed to the screen.

Best of all, The Secret World of Arriety treats itself and its subject matter seriously and realistically.  Arrietty's fears of her kind's extinction loom heavily overhead and render each of her actions that much more important.  All of the questions that one might ask about the borrower existence are addressed, except their origin, in a way that suggests some rather adult themes that most animated films wouldn't approach.  The Secret World of Arrietty never allows these existential topics to weigh down the film, but instead utilizes them to support its setting.

The only missteps in The Secret World of Arrietty are in Disney's localization of the film.  It is a blessing that Disney has stepped forward to provide an American home to Miyasaki's work over the years and they should be rewarded for their efforts.  Spirited Away won them an Academy Award in 2003 for Best Animated Feature and ever since that wonderfully localized film they have sought to broaden the market of Studio Ghibli's work.  This means hiring famous actors to do the voices of the characters, rather than talented voice actors, and inserting American pop-music into the films.  In The Secret World of Arrietty this can get quite distracting at times as the music and voices never quite fit as lovingly as they did in Spirited Away.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a refreshing breath of fresh air whose story and characters shouldn't be overlooked by adults and shouldn't be missed by children.  Sometimes all a film needs is to be stunningly beautiful, meticulously detailed, and simply compelling.  The Secret World of Arrietty is a glimpse into a world that hopefully won't be a secret for much longer.

3 / 4 Reels



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