Like nearly all the films from Japan’s justly celebrated Studio Ghibli—Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Grave Of The Fireflies, and more—The Secret World Of Arrietty lacks anything resembling a traditional villain. When conflict does arise, it comes from people with moderately clashing agendas. Some of its characters’ beliefs and actions are clearly misguided and even a little crazy, because they’re insensitive or callously harmful. But there’s no evil or even real malice at work in the film. Even when making movies for small children, Studio Ghibli produces stories that are more emotionally sophisticated, and less philosophically polarized, than most adult fare.
The Secret World Of Arrietty, loosely adapted from Mary Norton’s 1952 British children’s book The Borrowers, centers on a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a country house, occasionally “borrowing” a stray thimble, button, or sugar cube that the human beings above (which they call “Beans”) won’t miss. The family—married couple Pod and Homily (played in Disney’s new English-language dub by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, mysteriously cast in roles that allow for only slight, wry comedy) and their spunky, resourceful 13-year-old daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) have lived in isolation for years, unsure whether any other Borrowers are still left alive. For generations, the house’s owners have passed down stories about miniature residents living in the house, but the Borrowers have a self-protective taboo against being glimpsed by the Beans.
Then a new Bean joins the household—a passive, apathetic boy named Shawn (David Henrie), sent to his great-aunt’s country home to rest before an operation to mend his faulty heart. On her maiden trip into the Beans’ house for her “first borrowing,” Arrietty accidentally reveals herself to him, and her laconic father and anxiety-ridden mother immediately begin debating abandoning their comfortable, beautifully appointed home and striking out into the unknown. Crushed, Arrietty attempts to set things right, with increasingly problematic results.
Much like a slightly older-skewed version of My Neighbor Totoro, The Secret World Of Arrietty proceeds through most of its story with little sense of urgency, even when its excitable protagonist is dashing around her giant-sized world at top speed. Ghibli co-head Hayao Miyazaki (writer-director of Totoro, Spirited Away, and many other Ghibli projects) passed on directorial duties for Arrietty to veteran Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, but collaborated on the script, which clearly shows Miyazaki’s storytelling sensibilities. Arrietty is a typical Miyazaki heroine, equal parts innocent cheer, bluster, and submerged melancholy. She’s small enough to use a straight pin for a sword—and enough of a dashing romantic to enjoy that image—but it’s telling that the story never drives her to use her weapon on a living being. Her enemies are generally more abstract, and in no way vulnerable to stabbing.
In the early segments of the film, Arrietty faces the world with a self-satisfied confidence bordering on arrogance, and the film takes its time establishing her ebullient character and exploring the newly expanded borders of her world. The segment in which she and her father go borrowing together plays out like a low-key heist film, with the tension that comes from closely observing a methodical process, silently implying that every step is make-or-break crucial. Later, when Arrietty feels the full weight of her mistake, the film spends just as much time quietly observing her heartbreak, and how it changes her relationships with her parents and her own self-image.
Arrietty’s only problem is that it rarely overcomes that mechanical sense of abstract observation and pieces slowly fitting together, which works beautifully for the establishing segments, but keeps the later segments on an emotionally subdued keel that doesn’t allow for significant rising tension. Many of Arrietty’s decisions are hard to justify—shocked and traumatized after Shawn briefly glimpses her, she tries to rectify the situation by facing him directly and demanding to be left alone—but even at its most nightmarish, the film never reaches past an abstract curiosity over what will happen next. One key conflict plays out as a philosophical discussion pitting Shawn’s quiet nihilism against Arrietty’s verve and love of life. A more intense one sets the housekeeper, Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett), against the Borrowers, but their clash plays out in slow motion, with only a few moments of real threat.
Nonetheless, the slow pace and low-stakes drama leave plenty of time for appreciating Arrietty’s magnificently appointed world, realized with all of Studio Ghibli’s trademark abundant lushness. As Arrietty and Pod traverse the hidden spaces inside the country house’s walls and cabinets, every chip, scratch, stain, and warped wooden grain on every board is rendered lovingly and photo-realistically. Arrietty’s room is a riot of lavishly painted green plants, and her home is meticulously designed to be decodable as a series of repurposed human-sized objects, from postage-stamp wall art to a pen-cap vase. Careful thought was even put into how liquid moves on this small scale, with tea welling out of a Borrower-sized pot in slow-moving, massive, discrete droplets.
On the larger end of the spectrum, the sound design and a vast sense of depth and space in establishing shots convey Arrietty’s scale and the intimidation factor of the Beans’ world. Shawn in particular is simultaneously rendered as a self-pitying child and an outsized, callous monster whose casual power over Arrietty is frightening, even though he never consciously means her harm. (In some ways, his good intentions are subtly scarier than indifference would be, particularly since he not only directly causes most of Arreitty’s problems, but seems to relish the way her mounting crises make her more dependent on his intervention, giving him a chance to prove his worth.) Yonebayashi doesn’t exaggerate Shawn’s features, but seen up close from Arrietty’s perspective, his eerily inert face and massive, glossy, heavily lidded eyes make him look like one of the otherworldly creatures from Spirited Away. His thoughts on life and death, presented in a gentle, nearly toneless voice, are as threatening as his clumsy giant hands and well-meaning but horrifyingly presumptuous actions. And yet, seen on his own scale, he’s a harmless boy, albeit an unsettlingly morbid one.
But that duality is par for the course in Arrietty, which consistently manages the hat trick of making the world look simultaneously familiar and enticingly alien. That duality is at the heart of Studio Ghibli’s films, which so often access the purest joys of life without slathering on the sentiment or denying its occasional grimness. And like the best of them, Arrietty is nuanced enough to acknowledge how good intentions can be as damaging as bad ones, yet simple enough to take bittersweet pleasure in every aspect of life, whether happy or sad, just because it exists. The studio’s films are about journeys—some of them on a large scale, some tiny and internal. Arrietty cleverly manages both at once.