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Movie Review: 'The Secret World of Arrietty'

Co-founder of Studio Ghibli co-wrote screenplay based on 'The Borrowers'.

 

"The Secret World of Arrietty," the latest offering from the wildly popular Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, is being released in the United States in partnership with the Disney Company. First released in Japan on July 17, 2010, the North American version makes its debut Friday. 

(Movie is showing at the Bellevue Cinema in Upper Montclair.)

A tiny girl lives with her mother and father. She and her dad "borrow" all they need for their tiny home on the grounds of a sick human boy's grandmother and curious housekeeper. The boy comes to stay and discovers Arrietty, spurring fear and upheaval in the little household, a house that has a strict rule of staying undiscovered by their hosts.

The movie is a charming and slow attentive study of a friendship that teaches two budding youths—albeit of varying sizes—to learn trust, choose fearlessly,  and keep open hearts. The film is done in the traditional 2D animation style.

The Pixar style and design has been far more successful of late. The difference with the films of Studio Ghibli is that the anime visual style, mixed with the dreamy meditative storytelling, delivers a very different experience than the stimula-tron short-attention-span filmmaking the recent movies from Disney have offered. 

"The Secret World of Arrietti," or "Kari-gurashi no Arietti" (The Borrower Arrietti) as it is known in Japan, was a long time coming. Beloved animator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, who co-wrote a screenplay that was adapted from Mary Norton's fantasy novel "The Borrowers," had been thinking about it since he was in his 20s, about 40 years ago. *

Studio Ghibli wouldn't exist without Miyazaki. He was strongly influenced by Manga but fell in love with animation when he saw 1958's "The Tale of the White Serpent,"  the Japanese equivalent of "Snow White," (in that it was Japan's first full-length animated feature) and was inspired by the strong female heroine of the story, Bai-Niang. This influence explains the preference for strong female lead characters he has favored since his early days as an animator.  

The name Ghibli comes from the Arabic word for the Mediterranean wind, the idea being it would "blow a new wind through the Japanese anime industry"** and a fierce wind it has been…Studio Ghibli remains the only company outside the English-speaking world to win an Oscar for Best Animation Feature (for 2002's "Spirited Away"). 

As to how Disney and Ghibli became connected, look no further than this written tribute from Pixar founder John Lasseter: 

"As an animator and a director of animated films, I have always been greatly inspired by the films of Walt Disney, Buster Keaton and the cartoons of Chuck Jones. But by far, the most inspirational films for me are the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki … At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. 'Toy Story' owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki."

Ghibli animated features require the viewer's full attention. Children used to the incessant mile-a-minute action of Disney cartoons will be challenged. On the other hand, there is a gentle, even fragile quality to Arrietty. The backgrounds are beautiful and the characters' experiences against those backgrounds or interactions within them seem to be born of a desire to celebrate the artistic elements that make up the scene.

At one point Arrietty and her father are on a borrowing mission and they wordlessly travel through the walls to extract their objective, in this case, a cube of sugar. It seems unimaginable that Disney would allow that much time for one task. There is a kindness, as well, that is prevalent in the approach to all characters in the story, whether they be protagonist or antagonist.  This is a marked difference from the Disney movies, where the villains are often unredeemable or one-dimensional.  

As someone who has studied all the films of Disney backward and forward, I can see both their worst flaws and best inventions. I argue that there exists a place for both styles in the world of animation. The key is to view each style with the right expectations.  If you are considering bringing a younger child to see Arrietti, a high level of patience and interest in attention to detail are a must...
The film is the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi (nicknamed Maro), who had worked as a key animator on other studio successes "Spirited Away, Ponyo," and "Howl's Moving Castle."  

He is the youngest director to helm a Ghibli film. While Miyazaki was extremely influential with the storyline as the co-writer (he has written or adapted most of the successful titled released through Ghibli), he left the animation to the fledgling director. Yonebayashi also created his own storyboards.  

The score, which has gotten much attention for French composer Cecile Corbel, includes a song that Corbel sang in Japanese, English, French, German, and Italian. She originally got the job by sending a fan letter to the studio filmmakers with an accompanying example of her work. They listened to her music and decided she should collaborate on this film. That's a great lesson in proactive artistic marketing to all you musicians out there!

The best reason to see Arrietty is to experience the sense of wonder the films of Ghibli instill in its audience. If you are expecting fast action, however, you won't find it here…What you will find is a magical world that the filmmakers make seem very real, created in a very painterly way.  

For children, Arrietty is an inventive other world they can accept that feels like a visual lullaby.  Watching the movie as an adult is like stepping into a shy but gentle child's dream. No doubt it will put some to sleep. Others will be charmed. Are you curious to see which one you'll be?

About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren", is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. See more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

Maxine Rose February 25, 2012 at 12:26 AM
I thought it was the most precious movie I've seen as an adult in years...and I want my granddaughters to experience the passion and compassion of this film, the effort it takes to retrieve something and the value it holds is not found in any film of today, animated or real. The parts of the film that are quiet and thoughtful stimulate the mind and give the viewer the same opportunity of discovery. Priceless in today's world of noisy, irritating, rough, thoughtless movies. This is a keeper and a movie one will "think" about and dwell upon its mastery. Read the books too...so good.
Rosetta James February 25, 2012 at 07:08 PM
i took my granddaughter yesterday to see this movie and i was so moved by it and told her so. however, i was so surprised when my 1o year old granddaughter expressed disappointment in the ending which, at first, i had seen nothing wrong with. but when she said that the dollhouse should have been used more [effectively -- my word here] and Haru should have been carried out in a strait jacket leaving the dollhouse to the borrowers. after all, the only person who wanted to harm the tiny borrowers was Haru anyway. and if Haru had been banished, that would have left the dollhouse which had been built for the borrowers in the first place. and this way, they would not have had to flee in a teapot floating down a river. that ending, i had to agree, would certainly have been a more "and they all lived happily ever after" ending. [i would love, love, love to have a reply or two to my comment and i now plan to pick up the 1932 book.]

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