Refreshingly Simple, by Tyler Smith
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest film from Studio Ghibli, is almost impossible not to like. As always, the film is a marvel to look at. It’s nice to be reminded that, for all the 3D wizards working on most modern animated films, hand drawn animation can incredibly beautiful. The backgrounds, the character design, the action; it’s all so lovingly rendered. We can feel the care and gentleness that went into creating this film.
And it’s a good thing, too. Because The Secret World of Arrietty is a story that would crumble under a more forceful hand. While Studio Ghibli has specialized in fanciful tales of magic and wonder, this film is surprisingly slight and down-to-earth. Based on the popular children’s novel “The Borrowers,” Arrietty follows the exploits of a tiny family living under the floorboards of a country house. They make their living by venturing out into our world and “borrowing” the things they need to live.
One day, a young boy comes to live at the house, which is owned by his aunt. The boy is very sick and he needs to rest up before he goes in for a risky surgery. The boy encounters Arrietty, the tiny young girl that lives with her parents under the house. He is not phased by seeing a person that is three inches tall. Somehow being perpetually close to death has given him a different perspective. Rather than try to catch or kill Arrietty, as humans seem inclined to do, he asks, “Do you want to be friends?”
It is this simple question that struck me. I got a real sense of the boy’s loneliness. And Arrietty’s, too. Like many of the better children’s stories, there are certain adult sensibilities to be found here. Beneath the whimsical nature of the film is a mournfulness that underscores all the character’s lives. Arrietty, her parents, the boy, his aunt, the housekeeper, even the cat. They all seem just a little sad, as though they feel a deep longing for something more.
That something invariably turns out to be companionship. The boy’s illness has kept him isolated from other kids his age. Arrietty only has her parents because… well, because, as far as she knows, they’re the only “borrowers” left. And so these characters cautiously feel each other out. Arrietty has been warned about people and is suspicious of the boy; perhaps even more so as a result of his unusual kindness. Eventually, though, they are able to talk with each other and, eventually, work together to keep Arrietty’s parents from being found and captured.
This is a very simple film. No crazy plot twists. No over-the-top action sequences. The only complexities are those found in the relationships between the characters. I felt extremely relaxed while watching the film, like I was able to breathe a little easier. While so many other movies attempt to dazzle us, The Secret World of Arrietty is content to tell a small, quiet story and let us get to know the characters. I did not feel pressured to be impressed with the film. It was simply there, unconcerned with whether I liked it or not.
This may all sound very Zen-like, but that is often the feeling that I get with Studio Ghibli films. These are filmmakers unconcerned with box office or accolades. They seem only to be interested in spending time with fascinating characters in an unusual situation. And they invite us to go along with them.
Perhaps that is the highest praise that I can pay to The Secret World of Arrietty. In the midst of my frustrating, stressful adult life, I was able to sit back and let this pleasant, playful little film wash over me. And for a few moments, the concerns of my day seemed unimportant, and I was able to be a kid again.
I first want to say, that i really enjoyed your review and had a very similar viewing experience. But, i think what you (and I to an extent) are giving as praise is also one of the films biggest weaknesses. It is very small and it is relatively uninvolving (not a word…).
At the end of the story, i found it unsatisfying just how low stakes this film was. I wasn’t moved by the goodbye between Arrietty and the boy; and the way the boy passively reveals his dangerous operation goes well was kind of deflating. I’m not asking for a big emotional pay off, because that wouldn’t fit with the rest of the film, but i do think there was a lack of feeling.
Question for you: do you think this is a film you are going to remember in a few months? And maybe more importantly, does that lessen the value of this movie and the experience if you (or I) can’t?
Keep up the great work!
I did have the thought when the movie was over of, “Boy, that sure was a slight film.” But, the more I thought about it, the more I was okay with it. It sets a goal and, I think, achieves it. It doesn’t go to any great lengths to be memorable, but I think it is in its own little way.
Yeah I think I agree. It’s been a while since I’ve seen My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, but I remember those films being similar to Arrietty in terms of scope and atmosphere. I’m in the minority in thinking that Totoro wasn’t great. But, I still remember it fondly in much the way you just described. So maybe Arrietty will leave a similar impression for me.