The Secret World of Arrietty is a moving, artistic masterpiece that should not be missed by any viewer of any age. It is a likable, adorable, and compassionate film that says so much in its great simplicity.
In case that sounds like a cliched way to begin a review, let me start at the beginning. Based on The Borrowers novel that has been adapted into film several times, Studio Ghibli’s latest deals with the adventures of a curious and precocious girl, Arrietty, and of her loving parents, all of whom are Borrowers — very small people who live beneath the floors and “borrow” whatever they need to survive from human residences.
Arrietty’s firm but touchingly compassionate father Pod is generally the provider of the family, tasked with fetching whatever is necessary, while Arrietty’s lovingly overprotective mother Homily generally takes care of their little “household.” Arrietty takes a strong, early interest in her father’s work and is overjoyed when he allows her to come along on her first Borrowing, complete with her own set of climbing gear.
Late at night, when the inhabitants of a particular household are sleeping, Pod and Arrietty begin their unstable journey into the kitchen for the sake of a single sugar cube. The story effortlessly evokes interest in the plight of the Borrowers; their fear of even (literally) the smallest threats feels completely convincing. Arrietty’s exciting journey takes a turn for the worse when she is spotted by a boy named Shawn, who is immediately curious about this tiny stranger and what she wants. This budding one-sided friendship is questioned both by Arrietty and by her parents, often citing the fates of other Borrowers who were seen by humans.
The plot becomes more fully developed from there but remains simple enough throughout the film for adults and children to enjoy. Unlike most films where I can’t really elaborate on a thin story without spoiling details, the measured pacing and small amount of detail in Arrietty serve as a blessing rather than an aggravation (contrast films such as The Road and The Fountain), since each story event that does happen, feels genuinely special. As a viewer, I saw the ending of the story coming a mile away, but thanks to the wonderful characters, this understanding made me so deeply and genuinely happy to think about, that the predictability didn’t bother me at all.
Except that that’s not what really happened, because the story decided to surprise me in two big ways without ever deciding to evoke cheap drama, and how I wish I could elaborate here without ruining the ending. Nonetheless, while the plot sometimes became bittersweet, it was never truly negative or anything less than optimistic.
The story largely glosses over the morality of taking insignificant items for the sake of providing for one’s family, in essence stealing them. Other than this, Arrietty is a brave and mostly responsible protagonist who is greatly concerned about the well-being of her family even while she slowly gets to know the boy Shawn against her parents’ wishes. (One thing I loved about this film was that while it featured a strong female lead, the story never needed and never bothered to shove this in the audience’s faces.)
From the opening shot of a beautiful hand-drawn Japanese city, to a final shot that reminds me of parts of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the artistic direction in this film is stunning. Arrietty’s “garden” bedroom is likened to a “jungle” by her mother, but it is simply and absurdly beautiful. The colors are vivid and lively, creating a world that should inspire genuine wonder and curiosity in any viewer. (“What interesting uses could my small items have?”) This is a feeling I express very strongly, because I’m usually more interested in straightforward, matter-of-fact storytelling than in open-ended exploration of “what could be.” Not so here. The stringed instrumentals and vocally performed songs (there aren’t many, and none of the characters ever really break into song) are absolutely lovely and are a delight to listen to.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a blessing. It is a G-rated film that really feels like a G-rated film. There is no sexual content or innuendo, no profanity, one mild joke about sherry (though alcohol is on display in a few glasses), and very little in the way of outright violence, a large part of which is rendered in a silly manner and played for laughs. (A cricket leg is shown by itself at one point and is offered by one character as food. It is refused.) Though the plot sometimes ventures into sad territory and is willing to acknowledge themes such as death, those topics aren’t focused on. Deviating somewhat from typical Studio Ghibli fare, magic and mysticism essentially play no role in the story, which establishes the existence of tiny Borrowers but doesn’t condescend to give them special powers or abilities. There are no overly bizarre creatures or beings as in Spirited Away, giving this film the wonder of a Ghibli production without any of the oddness.
There’s really not much more to say about this film, partly because of its innocent simplicity and partly because of its overwhelmingly successful execution. It is a brilliant and life-affirming experience of a movie that deserves to be enjoyed and cherished, often in the littlest of things.