What happens when Hayao Miyazaki writes a film and passes it over to another animator to direct? In the case of The Secret World of Arrietty, magic happens. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes his directorial debut with a lot of style and heart.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Arrietty and her parents are a small race of people only four inches tall. They live under the floorboards of a big house and survive by borrowing little things no one will miss–sugar cubes, cookies, singular tissues. When a sick boy named Shawn moves in to rest before surgery, he immediately spots Arrietty practicing for her first night of borrowing.
The strength of The Secret World of Arrietty is not the beauty of the animation–it’s gorgeous–or the quality of the voice acting–the dubbed voices sound great and match the actions of the film. The strength is the clarity of storytelling. Anyone can walk into this film and understand what’s happening. It’s not that it’s dumbed down to appeal to a younger audience. It’s simply an honest telling of a lovely story that isn’t afraid to spend time on character development.The character development is quite engaging here. Take, for instance, the relationship between Arrietty and Shawn. Arrietty knows that the culture of The Burrowers will require her entire family to find a new home if she is seen by a human. So, every time Shawn and Arrietty talk, she hides herself in some way. She might shout out from a hidden corner or stand behind a leaf. As their relationship grows, she takes more risks in how she chooses to approach Shawn. She still won’t let him see her directly, but she trusts him not to try and steal a glance.
Another interesting trick that Yonebayashi uses to further connect Arrietty and Shawn is perspective. For Arrietty, everything in the human world is grand in scale. Crickets can fight her for a wildflower and rats would have no problem overpowering her. A nail barely sticking out of a wall can act as a step or a fish hook and line can be use to repel down the side of a cupboard.
Shawn is also constantly placed in larger surroundings. His guest bed is large and imposing. The ceilings in the house are tall and the tops of the doors would probably be beyond his grasp. When he’s in a scene with other humans, the camera is kept wide above them. He might as well be living in a wooden box filled with doll furniture like Arrietty for how large and intimidating his temporary surroundings are.
The two characters are trapped in the same situation in The Secret World of Arrietty. Shawn and Arrietty are old enough that they’re trusted to be left alone to do as they please in leisure time, but not old enough to be trusted with any real responsibility on their own. They’re only twelve and fourteen years old, respectively. The adults in their lives still view them as children while they both hope to reach independence in the near future. It only makes sense that these are the characters who drive the story when they pair off so nicely.The quiet moments are where The Secret World of Arrietty shines brightest. From the elaborate animation of crickets to the slow lumber of a predatory cat, the details that are used to enrich the setting and context of the story are precious. It’s Arrietty’s story, but the world of the title is its own character. The quiet moments that slow down the narrative wisely put the focus on the world that always changes. Even when they linger just a bit too long, the quality of the animation and score make them worth the wait.
The Secret World of Arrietty can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age. I have never seen a theater that packed with children sit so quietly and still during any film. There weren’t cries of “Mommy, what’s happening?” or “I wanna go home!” every five minutes. There was simply an audience of adults and children taking in a beautiful and honest film that exploded into private discussions as soon as the animated portion of the credits ended.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.