One of the best things about watching an animated film from the Japanese studio, Studio Ghibli, and more importantly, from its founder and well known Japanese animation director/ Manga artist Hayao Miyazaki (who’s made such great animated films as “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and more recently “Ponyo”), is that we get to see a truly unique animated experience. As great as animated movies from Pixar and sometimes from Dream Works are, Ghibli films have a certain magical spark and other worldly charm that the American movies don’t always have. Everything from the whimsical and intricate storylines to the fantastic musical scores and of course the magnificent hand drawn animation.
The latest film, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” (co-released by Disney for the North American release) is directed by long time Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, while Miyazaki served as Executive Producer, screenwriter and planner. Based on the book “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, it is a charming and pleasant animated fable that is done in a style and tone not seen in many recent animated movies. It doesn’t just appeal to children or adults, but both. It’s serious but not too serious to the point where it’s too dark for children, it’s funny but the humor is more sophisticated so adults can laugh along and it’s not merely trying to squeeze laughs out of the audience. The humor feels natural and deserved when it comes.
“Arreity” is about a lot of things, family, loyalty, isolation, wonder, curiosity but one prominent theme is survival. The film revolves around the Clock family, made up of the autocratic but caring father Pod (Will Arnette), the well meaning but worrisome mother Homily (Amy Poehler) and finally the brave and curious daughter Arriety (Bridgit Mendler). They’re a family of four-inch tall people who live secretly within another family’s home. Every day they have to make (sometimes dangerous) ventures out into different parts of the house while dodging rats, birds, cats and bugs, taking only what they need.
In order to survive they can’t come into contact with the regular size humans. However, trouble comes when Arriety is accidently found by Shawn (David Henrie), a perfectly harmless boy who is suffering from a heart condition and is temporarily living at the house with his Aunt Sadako (Phyllidia Law) and crazed housekeeper Hara (a magnificently crazy Carol Burnett) for some peace an quiet before he goes to get an operation.
Attention to detail. That’s something that can be said about the film and also Miyazaki’s entire body of work. In one scene Sadako shows Shawn a dollhouse that his mother and father built for the little people long ago to live in. They made everything by hand, down to the very last miniature teakettle. Yonebayashi and his entire team of animators have outdone themselves as well, capturing everything from the slight wiggle in the corner of the eye of the house cat, to the delicate, gelatinous water drops. In addition, the movie has been done in good old-fashioned 2D, which is a nice change considering just about every mainstream animated film is going to be in 3D. With its bright colors and beautifully painted backgrounds it doesn’t need to be in 3D.
To go along with that attention to detail is how patient and gentle the movie is. Most animated films are noisy and hectic and give the audience instant gratification, whereas “Arriety” goes for gradual build up. The soothing score by Ceicile Corbel and Dale Sison, combined with the slow movements of the characters, make each and every scene graceful and unhurried instead of just a bunch of chaotic toilet humor gags and talking donkeys thrown at you.
There’s so much more I could talk about in “The Secret World of Arriety” but part of the fun with Ghibli movies or any other animated films for that matter is discovering the magic for yourself. I could also try and point out minor flaws but that’s not really worth my time. It may not have been directed by Miyazaki but “Arreity” is still another delightful animated adventure from Studio Ghibli. It’s simple yet so detailed and easily one of the best-animated movies of the year so far.