The movie-review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes recently released its list of the 50-or-so best animated films of all time. All of the Top Ten were either Disney or Pixar products, and reader response split interestingly along generational lines. Old fogeys who remember the days when animation was done with millions of hand-painted cells tended to fall into the Disney camp; younger folks entranced with the capacity of modern CGI for near-photorealistic perfection tended to prefer Pixar.
Then there were the kids who, like my teenage son, grew up on GameBoy and watched endless hours of Pokémon TV episodes, or who devour Manga comics and graphic novels. “Why is all the stuff from Studio Ghibli so far down the list?” they demanded, aghast. “Why aren’t Spirited Away and Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro in the Top Ten?”
I suspect that the newest Studio Ghibli movie, The Secret World of Arrietty – released in Japan in 2010 but just now hitting the American market in a dubbed version – is going to evoke that same sort of generation gap. My gamer son had no problem at all with the anime visual style and enjoyed the film thoroughly. But my first acquaintance with anime was cheap, cheesy stuff like Astro Boy that my younger siblings used to watch on TV. So I had some trouble reconciling the minimally drawn, expressionless faces, the big blank eyes and tiny mouths of the humanoid characters with the lush gorgeousness and tactile detail of the background paintings in The Secret World of Arrietty. “Why can’t they make it all so beautiful?” I kept wondering.
Based (rather loosely) on the beloved Borrowers novels written in the 1950s by Mary Norton, The Secret World of Arrietty concerns Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), a 12-year-old boy with a heart condition who has been sent to stay with relatives to rest up for surgery in a suburban home surrounded by lovely gardens. (His parents are too busy working to give him the attention that he needs: the one bit of contemporary Japanese social commentary that the filmmakers saw fit to slip into the script.) The gentle Shawn begins to encounter tiny people called Borrowers who live under the floorboards of the house. He befriends the Borrower daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), but her parents, Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler), panic when they find out that she has been spotted by “Beans” (human beings) and start looking for other Borrower encampments so that they can move someplace safer.
The film is at its most rewarding when it contemplates the exquisite detail of the Borrowers’ living spaces or the dreamy, Impressionistic colors of the surrounding landscape. From Arrietty’s perspective we see mundane objects so close up that their textures become ravishing to the eye. On this level the movie is a work of art that will amply reward any viewer. The cognitive dissonance only sets in – and probably only for some – when the narrative focus is on the Beans and the Borrowers themselves. The relationship between Shawn and Arrietty is nuanced and lovely, but the other characters seem stylized in a peculiarly Japanese way that will be off-putting for some American viewers. Pod, the taciturn father, communicates mostly in grunts, and Homily, the mother, becomes hysterical at the drop of a hat. The housekeeper Haru (Carol Burnett), who wants to set exterminators on the Borrowers, is sort of her evil twin. It’s like a ‘50s family sitcom filtered through Noh drama.
The Secret World of Arrietty was produced by Toshio Suzuki, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. If the name Miyazaki is already golden to your ears, you won’t need me to tell you not to miss this film. If anime is not yet your cup of tea, you’ll probably find it worth seeing anyway, if for no other reason than the extraordinarily lifelike/dreamlike artwork of dewdrops on ivy leaves and so on. The musical score by Bretonne harpist Cécile Corbel, while adding an oddly Celtic spin to a Japanese take on some classic English kids’ lit, does not seem discordant, but actually enhances the aesthetic experience considerably. Grab a kid away from his or her computer game and go!