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Movie Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

Celebrating the Secret World

The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest offering from the wildly popular Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, is being released in the U.S. in partnership with the Disney Company. First released in Japan on July 17, 2010, the North American version makes its debut on February 17.  

A tiny girl lives with her mother and father.  She and her dad "borrow" all they need for their tiny home on the grounds of a sick human boy's grandmother and curious housekeeper. The boy comes to stay and discovers Arrietty, spurring fear and upheaval in the little household, a house that has a strict rule of staying undiscovered by their hosts.

The movie is a charming and slow attentive study of a friendship that teaches two budding youths, albeit of varying sizes, to learn trust, choose fearlessly and keep open hearts. 

The film is done in the traditional 2D animation style, which has largely become passe in this country. The Pixar style and design has been far more successful of late. The difference with the films of Studio Ghibli, is that the anime visual style, mixed with the dreamy meditative storytelling delivers a very different experience than the stimula-tron, short-attention-span filmmaking the recent movies from Disney have offered. 

The Secret World of Arrietty, or Kari-gurashi no Arietti (the Borrower Arrietti), as it is known in Japan, was a long time coming.

Beloved animator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, who co-wrote a screenplay that was adapted from Mary Norton's fantasy novel The Borrowers, had been thinking about it since he was in his 20s about 40 years ago.*

Studio Ghibli wouldn't exist without Miyazaki. He was strongly influenced by Manga but fell in love with animation when he saw 1958's The Tale of the White Serpent, the Japanese equivalent of Snow White, (in that is was Japan's first full length animated feature) and was inspired by the strong female heroine of the story, Bai-Niang. This influence explains the preference for strong female lead characters he has favored since his early days as an animator.

The name Ghibli comes from the Arabic word for the Mediterranean wind, the idea being it would "blow a new wind through the Japanese anime industry," and a fierce wind it has been.** Studio Ghibli remains the only company outside the English speaking world to win an Oscar for Best Animation Feature (for 2002's Spirited Away). 

As to how Disney and Ghibli became connected, look no further than this written tribute from Pixar founder John Lasseter: 

As an animator and a director of animated films, I have always been greatly inspired by the films of Walt Disney, Buster Keaton and the cartoons of Chuck Jones. But by far, the most inspirational films for me are the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki … At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.

Ghibli animated features require the viewer's full attention. Children used to the incessant mile a minute action of Disney cartoons will be challenged. On the other hand, there is a gentle, even fragile quality to Arrietty. The backgrounds are beautiful and the characters experiences against those backgrounds or interactions within them seem to be born of a desire to celebrate the artistic elements that make up the scene. At one point Arrietty and her father are on a borrowing mission and they wordlessly travel through the walls to extract their objective, in this case, a cube of sugar. It seems unimaginable that Disney would allow that much time for one task.

There is a kindness, as well, that is prevalent in the approach to all characters in the story, whether they be protagonist or antagonist. This is a marked difference from the Disney movies where the villains are often unredeemable or one-dimensional.

As someone who has studied all the films of Disney backwards and forwards, I can see both their worst flaws and best inventions.

I argue that there exists a place for both styles in the world of animation. The key is to view each style with the right expectations. If you are considering bringing a younger child to see Arrietty, a high level of patience and interest in attention to detail are a must.

The film is the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi (nicknamed Maro), who had worked as a key animator on other of the studio's successes, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Howl's Movie Castle. He is the youngest director to helm a Ghibli film. While Miyazaki was extremely influential with the storyline as the co-writer, (he has written or adapted most of the successful titled released through Ghibli), he left the animation to the fledgling director. Yonebayashi also created his own storyboards.

The score, which has gotten much attention for French composer Cecile Corbel, includes a song that Corbel sang in Japanese, English, French, German and Italian. She originally got the job by sending a fan letter to the studio filmmakers with an accompanying example of her work. They listened to her music and decided she should collaborate on this film. That's a great lesson in proactive artistic marketing to all you musicians out there!

The best reason to see Arrietty is to experience the sense of wonder the films of Ghibli instill in its audience. If you are expecting fast action, however, you won't find it here. What you will find is a magical world that the filmmakers make seem very real, created in a very painterly way.

For children, Arrietty is an inventive other world they can accept that feels like a visual lullaby.  Watching the movie as an adult is like stepping into a shy but gentle child's dream. Do doubt it will put some to sleep. Others will be charmed. Are you curious to see which one you'll be?

http://www.ghibliworld.com/news.html#2202
** The Birth of Studio GhibliNausicaä of the Valley of the Wind DVD, Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2005.

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