With the voices of Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, David Henrie, Carol Burnett. Written by Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa and Karey Kirkpatrick. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Gary Rydstrom. Rated G. 94 minutes.
Such is the esteem for the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli that their latest film to reach America, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY requires two reviews. Let’s address the family audience first, and then the anime cultists. Both will find much to enjoy here.
Based on the classic Mary Norton book “The Borrowers,” the cartoon is about tiny people who live in the walls of houses and “borrow” things from the normal sized “beans” (i.e., human beings) while trying not to be seen. Arietty (voice of Bridgit Mendler) is noticed by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly boy who has come to stay with his aunt prior to an operation. Shawn tries to help Arietty and her parents (real-life couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) while the family housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) becomes obsessed with catching the little people.
If you’ve seen “My Neighbor Tortoro” or “Spirited Away” or “Ponyo” you already know what to expect. Although master animator Hayao Miyazaki only worked on the script and design here, his protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked on several of Miyazaki’s films, steps up to direct. It is a sweet, gentle film where the two young characters each learn there’s no certainty about the future but there can be hope derived from trusting in the good will of others. Arietty has been taught to be fearful of the “beans,” while Shawn has a weak heart and may not survive the pending operation. Yet by caring for each other, they each gain the strength to persevere and move on.
Youngsters will be captivated by the handdrawn animation and engaging characters, whether it involves Arietty and her father attempting to “borrow” a sugar cube or Shawn discovering he is not the first in his family to believe in the little people. To watch this movie is to wonder how something as vulgar and moronic as, say, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” could even be conceived.
For the devotees of Japanese animation, or anime, there will be mixed feelings. The beauty of the work is apparent, but in being released by Disney the film has gone through an adaptation process and it’s impossible to know without seeing the original what was lost or changed. An additional writer and director are credited for the American version, and the dubbed soundtrack – while fitting the characters – is actually the second English language soundtrack created for the film. A British track with a different cast was created for the release in the United Kingdom. It’s too much to ask for such a film to get a wide release with a Japanese soundtrack and subtitles for the limited number of viewers who would prefer to see it that way, but one hopes that eventually the original film will be made available for theatrical showings and, certainly, on DVD where there is no reason not to make both versions available.
“The Secret World Of Arietty” is yet another jewel in the crown of Studio Ghibli. Whether enjoying it with your children or on your own, it reminds us that animation doesn’t have to be in 3D, doesn’t have to be computerized, and doesn’t have to hit us over the head. There has been some great recent American animation to be sure, but it’s useful to remember that that’s not the only approach.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.