May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
February 20, 2012
The Secret World of Arrietty, the new Studio Ghibli film, isn’t really a Miyazaki, but you could easily mistake it for one. Disney’s marketing has carefully pitched the film as being “from the studio that brought you Spirited Away and Ponyo,” both Miyazakis, and it could happily fit somewhere between those films and another of his films, My Neighbor Totoro. I can’t speak for Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed the film, but “easily mistaken for Hayao Miyazaki” is a compliment I’d be happy to receive.
Miyazaki is of course Ghibli’s most prolific and well-known director, though the studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata has a substantial body of work with a slightly different style. The studio has also released several one-off films from other directors, including Miyazaki’s son Goro, but none have shown much in the way of a distinct voice.
It’s not surprising that Arrietty feels like Miyazaki’s handiwork, given that he conceived the project and wrote the script. Like Howl’s Moving Castle, the film takes the work of an English children’s author —here Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people who live beneath and occasionally steal scraps from the houses of their human hosts — and filters it through a Ghibli lens.
You can see why Miyazaki chose it; it’s a story about bridging the divide between worlds, one of his pet themes, and with its microscopic focus, there’s plenty of opportunities to showcase those lush environmental details that have always been Ghibli’s strength. In past Ghibli films I’ve found myself wishing I could zoom in on the dense forests and intricate cities; with Arrietty, I finally can.
Of course, Arriety‘s only setting is an idyllic cottage and its backyard, but through the lens of the doll-sized borrowers, even kitchen clutter is as wonderous as the riot of magic in Spirited Away. The film is at its best when the borrowers are at work. Like a Batman of the sewing drawer, Arrietty’s father scales the incredible heights of cupboards and counters by repurposing such refuse as double-sided tape, fishing hooks and Christmas lights. Theirs is a landscape of ropes, ladders and mountains, insect monsters and even overwhelming sound — the refrigerator thrums with all the intensity of the Inception soundtrack.
The actual plot, such as it is, is on the scale of its protagonists, in sharp contrast to the Hollywood formula that puffs even children’s films up with manufactured tension and “epic” climaxes. The villain here is not especially villainous nor the straits especially dire. It’s a compliment to the film’s “small is big” drama that when a character with a heart condition walks briskly through the forest, it’s more harrowing than most quick-cut car chases.
Arrietty does regard its central dilemma — whether or not Arrietty’s family should move, having been discovered — as a matter of real concern, but blessedly without hysterics. The borrowers trust one another, and are confident they can do what needs to be done. In a move typical of the film’s sensibilities, after Arrietty is first spotted, there’s little handwringing, just reassurance from her stoic but warm father: “I’m proud of you. A lesser borrower would have panicked.” Even Arrietty’s mother, who worries constantly, is self-aware enough to chide herself for it.
Arrietty herself is a dashing, winsome character, wearing a pin at her side like a rapier and tackling each problem that comes her way with a mixture of wit, determination, and prudence. Her animation is splendid: lithe, agile and expressive, especially compared to the relatively static animation of her supporting cast. Few studios have a better track record of heroines than Ghibli, whose capable female leads effortlessly tread the line between Disney’s dully passive early princesses and their often self-absorbed later ones.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Shawn, the boy who spots Arrietty, and whose vague heart condition and melancholic disposition ought to provide the film’s pathos. But from character design to animation to dialogue, he’s barely more than a genre template, and his wincingly schmaltzy “my heart is stronger now with you in it” speech feels unearned. His discussion about his own mortality is a little more interesting, although it comes close to overplaying the film’s themes. (In an interesting throwaway detail, we can glimpse the words “La Divina” on the cover of Shawn’s book. La Divina Commedia, perhaps, since death is apparently on his mind?)
The melancholy that Shawn brings to the film is complemented by the frequent suggestion that Arrietty and her family might be some of the last remaining borrowers, and the reminders that other borrowers have suffered greatly when discovered by human “beans,” as they’re called. Here as in many other Miyazaki films, the human need for possession and control wreaks havoc on the many wonders of the world. Thankfully, Arrietty makes for a more subtle ecological parable than, say, Princess Mononoke and its literally dying forest god, and there’s considerably more optimism about the possibility of mutually beneficial coexistence.
Arrietty comes to the U.S. with an unprecedented push from Disney, whose dubbed version is showing on more screens than any Ghibli film before it. It’s a gentle, pleasant and straightforward film that I hope does very well. What that would mean for the studio’s future, given that Hayao Miyazaki has toyed with — though never committed to — retirement, is unclear. It would be nice to think that young directors like Yonebayashi can fill his shoes, or at least wear some fine shoes of their own, though given Miyazaki’s obvious script-level and likely production-level influence on the Arrietty, I have a hard time finding Yonebayashi’s own voice. Still, it’s a winning film, and I hope it’s the beginning of a fruitful transition for a wonderful — literally full of wonder — studio.