The timeline began exactly half a century ago, when the first volume of Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers” series was published. Followed by five sequels, the children fantasy novel spun a plethora of film and TV adaptations, yet each, in some way or another, failed to revive the crystal-clear innocence that made the series a sensation. Meanwhile Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, two young Japanese animation artists took notice and decided to render the series their way. What ensued was 40 years of waiting, during which they founded Studio Ghibli, produced a wowing succession of animated films and earned international acclaim for such works as “Spirited Away” (the only Academy Award-winning animated feature in a foreign language to date) and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (cited as an influence for this year’s winner, “Rango”). Then they were finally ready. So was the audience — the film became the highest-grossing home-produced film at the Japanese box office in 2010.
Even without its winding history, “The Secret World of Arrietty” would still be a testimony of patience as a virtue. For the moviegoers, it means a contrast with the attention-deficit fanfare and high-octane drama plaguing American animation that attempts to electrify a market of collective stupor. Yes, that sometimes includes Pixar, too. (“Cars 2.” Enough said.) The meticulous attitude and the frisky yet deliberate pace reveals an artistic confidence, which dismisses gimmicks in favor of quality ownership of the basics even when reinterpreting the familiar premise of a miniature world: a clean story, a beautiful execution and a humane, forgiving look at hopes, love and the common flaws in all of us.
A lively and adventurous “borrower” (their kind referred to as “little people” by the human characters), 14-year-old Arrietty lives with her parents under the floorboards of a country house, cohabiting with the humans by “borrowing” snippets of their daily supplies. Arrietty’s unquenched curiosity leads her to explore the human world and befriend Shawn, a boy staying in the house while waiting for his upcoming heart surgery. Their friendship gives rise to suspicions in both communities, which prompt a joint quest and a new beginning. Interweaved in the course of the encounters, the stories of the two families bring out distinct personalities: the taciturn, cautious Pod as Arrietty’s father and his loving but perennially anxious wife Homily, Shawn’s grumpy cat Nina, the porcupine-like, awkward and kind “borrower” Spiller and the slightly psychopathic, inquisitive housemaid Jessica. Through their interactions, screenwriter Miyazaki continues the running themes in his career of works: unfulfilled dreams, intrusion of humankind on nature, harm despite good intentions, longing for connection among groups and feminist awakenings. Director Hirosama Yonebayashi faithfully conveys these musings, shifting between humorous interjection (“Children are most vicious,” Pod warns Arrietty) and weighty monologue (Arrietty’s confrontation with Shawn). Thanks to its balanced script, the film still flows with a signature Ghibli style, graceful and simple.
Yet this is not the full picture. Half a year after the British dub led by Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “The Lovely Bones”), the U.S. version arrived on Jan. 21 with a fresh cast under Walt Disney Pictures. One could not help but wonder how much Hollywood would manufacture the film. Here is the good news: apart from an English track, the film remains untouched. When Harvey Weinstein as Miramax co-chairman tried to edit “Princess Mononoke” more than a decade ago, he received an authentic samurai sword from Studio Ghibli with the words “no-cuts.” Since then, the studio’s famed “no-edits” policy in licensing has successfully sliced down any fidgets to make its productions “more marketable.” But how is the dub itself?
Brigit Mendler as the title character is fairly good, giving a voice rich with emotions and tonal subtleties but a tad formulaic. Amy Poehler’s dub as Homily suffers more from the slew of commercialized animations she previously worked on, starting decently but growing increasingly melodramatic toward the second half of the film. David Henrie, on the other hand, eclipses them both: the longtime staple of Disney Channel and Mendler’s fellow star on “Wizards of Waverly Place,” Henrie masters the gloomy, forlorn air of Shawn. Giving palpable warmth to Shawn’s sincerity and friendliness, Henrie’s dub departs from the flat and over-the-top clamor of his home studio and matches the vocal chops of Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”), who embraces the calm, mature and jaded personality of Arrietty’s dad with husky charm.
The fair dub is but one piece of the soundscapes of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” In the scene where Arrietty, accompanied by her father, takes on her very first “borrowing” (one sugar cube and a piece of tissue), we are immersed in a magic world full of danger and wonder. With nails on the wall as their steps through the basement “valley,” pumps and ropes as their elevator and double-sided tape as their hiking boots, the kitchen transforms into the Grand Canyon for the adventurers. The amplification of sounds cleverly adds to the atmosphere: the ticking of the clock, the humming of the fridge, the rasp of friction and the squelch of sticky tape all crisply tingle our senses. Deeply engrossed, we travel back in time to our infant years, when every sensory input demands attention, when even the most ordinary is extraordinary. Yet the truly soaring sounds belong to Cécile Corbel, who alone elevates the film to new heights with her composition, instrumentals and vocals for the soundtrack. In the opening scene where Shawn first arrives at the idyllic country house, the French-born multilingual singer and harper gives us chills from the very first note, glimmering the graphics with her distinct Celtic vibe and adding an ethereal tranquility to the film.
The film inherits Studio Ghibli’s tradition of 2-D hand-drawing with occasional CGI, honoring the precision of Japanese figural brushwork without losing the lush watercolor texture in the background. Overall, the craftsmanship goes well beyond the visual: refusing to juice out every potential for drama, the film embodies the restraint and the painstaking attention to details that have made Studio Ghibli universally respected. In the end, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a refreshing breeze that makes your days just a bit sunnier.