Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'The Secret World of Arrietty' is No Longer Studio Ghibli's Best Kept Secret--Review

This past President's day, my girlfriend and I celebrated an unusually belated Valentine's Day. With both of our schedules discombobulated and topsy-turvy, we figured a good ol' fashioned date night was long past overdue. We went out for a few drinks, grabbed a bite to eat, and decided to head over to our local cinema and see the latest Studio Ghibli release, The Secret World of Arrietty. Maybe it was the Irish root beer I drank or the flaming pot of tom yung goong I ate, or hell, maybe it was the pretty girl holding my hand in the back of the theater, but somewhere while watching Studio Ghibli's latest american release, I understood that Hayao Miyazaki and his team had done it again--another instant classic.

Of course this is not the first time I've had this epiphany while watching a Studio Ghibli film. Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Nausicaa, and the list continues on from there. Each one of these films and the others I fail to mention causes my heart to explode with happiness. In all my completely unbiased efforts (hah! who am I trying to fool here), I hope to examine Arrietty and help describe what makes this new feature film immediately timeless.

Based on the children's fantasy novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and  screenwriters Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Neiwa bring forth The Secret World of Arrietty. The film is a coming of age tale about a secret family of borrowers (little people-but not the politically correct kind) and their teenage daughter Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) who live in a house owned by "Human Beans," or normal size people. One day, an unexpected and unconventional friendship begins between Arrietty and Shawn (David Henrie), a teenage "Bean" who has come to live at his aunt's quiet home to get rest before a heart surgery in the days to come. This unlikely friendship leads to the caretaker (Carol Burnet) Haru's discovery of the borrower family inside the home and her personal vendetta to rid and exterminate the minuscule creatures.

The first feature movie goers will notice is the pacing of Arrietty. If you walk into the theater expecting an action-packed thrill ride of surprise after surprise of entertainment, this movie is not meant for you. Calm, collective, insightful-- these are the tones that work best for this film. Imagine, if you will, going outside and tending to a lovely garden. Watching as the greenery sways to a gentle breeze. Feeling the tiny legs of a pill bug scuttle across your hand before rollings itself into a ball. Listening to the noisy calls from a bird on a tree limb in the distance. These are many of the quiet moments featured in the film and for good reason too. From the film's perspective, a tranquil and serene atmosphere is the sole purpose young Shawn is sent to live with his aunt. Director Yonebayashi uses these minimalist techniques to deliver that much stronger of a story. The same way literary master Ernest Hemingway packs enough depth into his stories without the tendency of over elaborating. Every quiet scene in the film works without the use of dialogue or commentary.

Some audience members might feel Arrietty lacks the imagination, wonder, and excitement displayed in previous Studio Ghibli works, like Spirited Away or The Cat Returns. However, the tremendous detail between the size and scope of characters and their surroundings in the film is certain to make the ordinary look extraordinary. One of my favorite moments of the film is entering Arrietty's room and her family's house for the first time and looking at the small amounts of detail. The young girl decorates her room with flowers and foliage from an outside garden, making it look earthy and natural. Later, while further inside the family's home, you notice other small spectacles like a dragonfly's wing used as a fountain pen. Other spectacular moments to notice Ghibli's effortless depiction of size and scale is when the borrowers encounter other animals; whether it's crickets, a cockroach, a bothersome crow, a racoon, human "beans," or the menacing house cat, Nina, all the animals behave in unnatural ways with the borrowers compared to how they would interact with normal humans. This much adds to the excitement and curiosity of following around Arrietty.

Speaking of the character Arriety, the next feature I want to address are the characters in the film. For a movie without a twisting plot-line, the characters in the film are surprisingly well developed. I've already mentioned the three most obvious (Arrietty, Shawn, and Haru) but everyone else, whether they have larger roles, like Arrietty's parents, Pod (Will Arnet) and Homilly (Amy Poehler), or remain minor characters like Spiller (Moises Arias), who is only on the screen for less than ten minutes, they all manage to feel more than substantial. This leads me back to the comment I made about Hemingway earlier. There is so much to this film, yet so little and it all works in its advantage. But that's not the best thing. Even the cat, Nina, manages small characteristics worthy of noticing and tends to grow as a character. If you don't believe me, watch the movie. I was also thoroughly impressed with Disney's voice casting. Disney normally exceeds expectations with their films and the great quality voice actors and actresses they choose, so when seeing the names Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnet my hopes and expectations jumped as much when I first saw Billy Crystal attached to Howl's Moving Castle. However, it was such a great and wonderful surprise  when these actor's characters appeared on screen, I hardly recognized the voices attached to them. Once again, Disney has achieved the remarkable and allowed the actors to voice characters they would not normally perform.

Between the pacing, the perspective, and the characters, The Secret World of Arrietty is a film that evokes many thematic qualities most known in Studio Ghibli films. Much like the films Pom Poko, Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle, human encroachment is a theme in the film. Viewing audiences will find a cautionary tale in Arrietty between the coexistence of humans and endangered animals and find two sides, each with differing points of view. Shawn is the calm, collective, and helpful human. Haru is the complete opposite: excited, rash, and destructive. Luckily, the team at Studio Ghibli do not excesshit viewers over the head with these two types. It could easily be overdone and certainly done to death. However, they are both subtle and timed perfectly.

To this date, The Secret World of Arrietty is the best minimalist effort of storytelling I've seen Studio Ghibli take part in. The film features everything iconic and wonderful from previous Studio Ghibli films with the help of attempting something bold and new. Keep in mind this film is slow and quiet, yet completely resourceful because of it. Like I said previously, if you're expecting to be swept off your feet and taken to a fanciful imaginary land, this is not it. This is Studio Ghibli taking the original and showing it to you like you've never seen it before. Give it patience like you would a garden and I guarantee you within the first ten minutes Arrietty will grow on you.


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