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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 24, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 08
Studio Ghibli's Arrietty a sensation Woman in Black a classic Gothic thriller
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Studio Ghibli's Arrietty a sensation Woman in Black a classic Gothic thriller

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Secret World of Arrietty
Opening February 17


Based on Mary Norton's family literary marvel The Borrowers, the latest effort from Studio Ghibli, The Secret World of Arrietty, is the first non-Hayao Miyazaki directed effort I can honestly say comes close to being a masterpiece. With a screenplay co-written by the Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke genius, this sparkling adaptation transcends culture and ethnicity to become instantly timeless. This divine hand-drawn animated adventure took my breath away on more than one occasion, and by the time it came to an end, I wanted to run up to the projection booth and make the theater start it over from the beginning.

Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) and her equally diminutive mother Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler) and father Pod (voiced by Will Arnett) live in a tiny abode built within a stack of bricks underneath the foundation of a secluded country home. The wily housekeeper Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett) has known something strange has been going on for quite some time, while sickly newcomer Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) is fascinated by his Aunt Jessica's (voiced by Gracle Poletti) unbelievable stories of the little people and of the doll house her father built in hopes they'd someday choose to live there.

Shawn has seen Arrietty and knows that she and her family exist and are not figments of his imagination. Pod and Homily are terrified to learn that their daughter has been having conversations with a 'bean' (that's a human being) and know from past tragedies that they will have to immediately move in order to avoid catastrophe. But the bond between Shawn and Arrietty goes deeper than either realizes, as their friendship may be the only thing assuring the latter's survival and the former's recovery from a devastating ailment.

Horton's story has been adapted before, most notably in 1997 by director Peter Hewitt (Garfield). While I liked that version, starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent, it doesn't hold a candle to this one. Miyazaki, co-writer Keiko Niwa, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi show the material such respect, such reverence, they manage to bring forth all of its major themes of friendship, family, and self-reliance with ravishing ease. At the same time, they're not so beholden to Norton's source material that they're afraid to make cinematic changes that could help the tale reverberate on a deeper level. It's a masterful reinterpretation of the novel, and each moment spent with Arrietty, Shawn, Pod, Homily, and all the rest is one to cherish.

The animation is as richly layered as any of Miyazaki's classics, having a distinct look and feel that's similar to Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle but at the same time achieving a delicately balanced milieu intractably its own. Colors pop off the screen, rich blues and greens filling the frame giving things an earthly sheen that speaks to the ecological and humanistic balance central to the story (and, in retrospect, to the majority of Miyazaki and his studio's previous efforts).

Disney has maybe gone a bit overboard in some respects, casting their Wizards of Waverly Place starlet Mendler and giving her a slightly obnoxious Radio Disney pop song to sing over the end credits (the U.K. version featured Saoirse Ronan in the part; I'd love to hear what she did with it). Mendler isn't bad, but she brings an unceasingly precocious perkiness to her portrayal that at times grew tiresome.

But this is a minor complaint. The Secret World of Arrietty soars at every turn, building to an honestly tearful finale that's touching, poignant, and altogether natural. If this is the direction Studio Ghibli is going now that Miyazaki has begun passing the animation torch to others, then my hopes for their continued success are certainly augmented. Their version of Norton's novel borders on perfection, and even though it's only February, there's every indication I've just watched the best animated film I'm likely to see this year.

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