Friday, February 17, 2012

Studio Ghibli: The Secret World of Arrietty

The love for fantastical little people is pretty universal. Perhaps that is why Mary Norton award winning British YA novel The Borrowers transferred rather easily to Koganei, a Tokyo suburb that happens to be home to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Following several well received live action adaptations from the likes of Hallmark Hall of Fame and the BBC, Studio Ghibli produced an anime treatment helmed by their youngest feature director to-date and co-written by Miyazki himself. Set to become Disney’s most widely distributed Ghibli release on a reported 1,200 screens, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty (trailer here) opens today nationwide.

The so-called Borrowers are tiny but proportional people who live in the cracks and crevices of country homes. They survive by “borrowing” supplies that will not be missed from the human household, like a sugar cube. Up until now, the borrowing has been the sole responsibility of Arrietty’s quietly protective father Pod, but having reached a certain age, it is time for her to learn how to survive as a borrower. As her high strung mother Homily anxiously awaits, she and her father venture into the big house. However, their foray leads to disaster when a recent arrival spies them.

Shō is a sickly human boy, trundled off to the secluded cottage to rest up for an upcoming operation. He instantly recognizes the borrowers from the family legends of the little people living under the floor boards. Even though the scale is problematic, he is also pretty psyched to talk to a girl. Unfortunately, Arrietty’s father is adamant: once borrowers have been seen, they must move on post-haste. Frankly, his concern is not misplaced. Though Shō means them no harm, Haru, the maid of the house, also suspects their presence and intends to treat them like any conventional infestation.

Aside from some CGI here and there, the mostly hand drawn Secret looks richly detailed and lushly evocative. Indeed, the verdant garden is particular suited to the Ghibli magic. The film has plenty of style, but beyond Ghibli’s considerable circle of admirers, it will largely skew towards younger viewers. Still, it is rather watchable for adults so inclined. Indeed, Arrietty is much more agreeably plucky than cloying. Likewise, Shō might be a bit of a sad sack, but at least he is not an energy drain on the film. Even the original songs by French pop-star Cécile Corbel are surprisingly graceful and distinctive.

The only real drawback is the American dubbing, including an over-the-top Carol Burnett as Haru, the bland Will Arnett as Pod, and several tweeners adults will not recognize. Somehow, they just do not sound right. (In contrast, the British release features the voice talent of Mark Strong, Olivia Colman, and Saoirse Ronan, which certainly looks more interesting on paper.)

Secret looks great and parents can feel safe and confident taking their children. Although Haru’s maniacal streak seems a bit excessive (from a credibility standpoint), the overall film is quite gentle and charming. A solid B+ outing from Studio Ghibili, Secret opens today (2/17) in New York at Regal Union Square and AMC 34th Street and in San Francisco at the AMC Van Ness.