Studio Ghibli is the Pixar of Japan. Like Pixar (at least until Cars 2), they never put out a bad movie. Everything they release is full of incredible imagination, wit and heart. From My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away to 2008’s wondrous Ponyo, Studio Ghibli produces some of the best animated feature films to ever be released. If you haven’t seen any of their movies, there’s no better time to start then now with this week’s new release, The Secret World of Arrietty. While it doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of those aforementioned films, it lags not far behind. Young or old, The Secret World of Arrietty is magical and is not to be missed.
The film follows a sick young boy named Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) who is spending a week in the house his mother grew up in to rest before his upcoming heart operation. He used to hear stories of miniature people living under that house, but as most people would, he thought of them as nothing more than feel good tales, but his disbelief quickly vanishes when he arrives and spots Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) jumping from leaf to leaf in a nearby bush. Arrietty is what you would call a “borrower” and she, along with her father, Pod (voiced by Will Arnett) and mother, Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler), lives off the resources of the human beings living above her. Their existence is secret and they only sneak up when the coast is clear so they can grab what is essential to live. Past incidents have shown them that human beings aren’t to be trusted, but Shawn is different and Arrietty strikes up a friendship with him against her parents’ wishes.
There’s a lot to be said for computer animation. Computers can create images that hand drawings can’t. They can build realistic three dimensional worlds that are as detailed as if you went out with a camera and physically shot something yourself. But when every animated movie uses this format, it becomes stale. That’s one of the many reasons why Studio Ghibli is so great; their movies are hand drawn. Sure, some things are spruced up a bit with three dimensional renderings (most notably in Princess Mononoke), but their animation technique is one not seen much these days. The Secret World of Arrietty continues in the studio’s tradition of hand drawn animation and it’s arguably their most gorgeous one yet. With visuals reminiscent of a watercolor painting, it’s like watching an artist’s still canvas come to life. They’ve crafted a world that feels real, defying your adult brain that should know it’s not, and that’s a testament to the many talented people who have lovingly put this together. It’s a vivid world that will capture your imagination even if the story doesn’t.
Luckily, the chances of that happening are slim to none. It would be easy to brush The Secret World of Arrietty off as a children’s film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although it’s accessible to children, it also takes a surprising look at mortality and the value of life, no matter how small. As previously mentioned, Shawn is deathly sick. His heart is not strong and he’s facing the harsh truth that, if his operation isn’t successful, he may only have a few days left to live. While certainly not an emotionally weak child, his eventual companionship with Arrietty makes him stronger and gives him optimism that the world will go on after his operation and he’ll still be there to partake in its pleasures.
Conversely, Shawn teaches Arrietty a thing or two. Because of her size and the impending danger that lurks around every corner, including a hungry bird and cat, Arrietty knows little about the outside world. She has never met another borrower, much less an actual full sized person, and she has been taught her entire life that humans are evil and to fear them. It’s all she knows, but when she meets Shawn, the kind and gentle soul he is, she learns that her fear is unwarranted. There may be some bad people out there, but Shawn isn’t one of them and gives her a new perspective on life.
It may seem crazy that a G-rated animated family film could be as deep and contemplative as this, but that’s the strength of Studio Ghibli (and Pixar for that matter). Their movies always have a tremendous amount of heart and brains. The Secret World of Arrietty is bright and colorful, yes, but it’s also awe inspiring and spiritual. It’s a wonderful adventure.
The Secret World of Arrietty receives 4.5/5