Friday, February 24, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty - Theatrical Review


Release Date: February 17, 2012

You just can't go wrong with a Studio Ghibli animated feature. No matter how bitter you are towards the world, no matter how many things aren't going your way and no matter how much you might think you dislike animated movies, they always instill a love for life in anyone that experiences their magic touch.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 9:10 am February 18, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: G
Film Runtime: 1 hr 32 min
Studio: Disney

Loves: Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, anime, 2D animation
Likes: Everything
Neutral: Miyazaki did not direct this
Hates: Absolutely nothing
Based: on the 1952 series of children's novels called The Borrowers

I am horrible at explaining myself when it comes to a Studio Ghibli (pronounced Jey-Blee) production. I think my love for the inexplicably flawless animation studio comes from the persistently beautiful 2D hand drawn animation mixed with lovable characters and fully realized worlds that are filled will all sorts of wonders instilled into all their work. Their films always appear to have the simplest of tales yet they are almost always overflowing with imaginative touches and indelible characters that seem to elude just about every other animated studio out there (Pixar not withstanding). Yes, that is including even the almighty Walt Disney Studios. You see, Ghibli has yet to stumble in my opinion. Even what some might consider to be some of their more standard offerings leave an ever lasting impression and other than Pixar, Disney has all but lost the touch they once had. Now granted, Disney has been around a whole lot longer but I can't help but feel that the films coming out of Ghibli contain that same magic that used to coat every feature to come out of the house the mouse built back in its prime. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi carries on that fine tradition of quality with their latest animated feature, The Secret World of Arrietty.  

Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler)is a four inch tall 14 year old girl called a borrower. Her, along with her mother and father live within the walls of some unsuspecting beans (that is what they call the humans) where during their nightly borrowing excursions they take things of little significance which they can use in a variety of ways and never be missed. Their existence relies on their anonymity however and when a new bean child named Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) arrives and catches a glimpse of Arrietty in the garden, their lives become threatened as they come to grips with a decision that may result in them leaving their home forever.

2D animation is as beautiful as ever.

This is not the best film Studio Ghibli has ever produced, so get that out of your head right now. Trying to compare all their collective works with one another is the same as trying to determine which diamond has more worth to it. They all have their individual qualities that not only help separate them from each other but also allow them to try something new each time out the door. As much as I love all the films that Miyazaki has directed himself I don't think I would want all Ghibli films to feel the same. I love that each time I sit down and prepare myself to experience one of their films that I have absolutely no idea what to expect from it which always results in something magical that almost no other film can compare with.

The first thing that you are likely to notice when the first image appears on screen is the lush 2D animation. From the detailed landscape and all the life within it to the deceptively simple character designs and their meticulous detail in even the most mundane of motions, the animation behind Arrietty is without a doubt in a league of its own for its respective genre. The scope of the world as we see it through the eyes of the borrowers is often times breathtaking yet also very reserved. Early on when we first get a glimpse of how Arrietty and her father traverse the intricate inner workings of the gigantic household I found myself mesmerized by the simple beauty of the world. It may not have the sweeping visuals and a half dozen things going on in every frame of animation that many of the more ambitious films from the studio has done in the past but it is still one of the most gorgeous animated films to come along in a very long time which is par for the course with a company like Ghibli. That is not a knock against it by any stretch, just because of it is slightly less ambitious doesn't mean its accomplishments are any less impressive.

Arrietty struggles on her first borrowing excursion.

Speaking of ambitions, let's talk for a second about the actual scope and scale of the story itself. Perhaps one of the biggest complaints (and probably the only one) from many Studio Ghibli faithful that I have heard is that Arrietty is not quite as ambitious a film as some might expect or even hope for considering the amount of talent that worked on it. Blame it on first time director Yonebayashi, blame it on a lack of any sort of significant involvement by Miyazaki or blame it on the source material which is a series of children's novels from back in the 1950's. Either way this is not an epic adventure, The Secret World of Arrietty instead focuses on a small secluded household in the forest and its inhabitants, both big and small. Does that make its tale any less interesting? Not in the least.

The core conflict of the film comes from the humans who live in that house and the borrowers who secretly live within their walls and how their separate worlds eventually collide. This collision comes in the form of the young boy named Shawn who upon his arrival at the house catches a glimpse of something in the garden, something that sticks with him because of how unusual it was. What he saw of course was Arrietty, the spunky little (that's an understatement....hey, so was that) borrower who was out exploring when she wasn't supposed to be. They of course cross paths later and despite protests from her parents, Arrietty feels compelled to continue her anonymous meetings with Shawn where the two of them begin to form a very innocent yet charming friendship with one another.

Shawn and Arrietty quickly become good friends.

The relationship that is forged between Arrietty and Shawn IS the movie for me. It isn't your typical scenario where there is a romantic angle to their attraction to one another, although there are hints of a deeper affection between the two. No, what I found so engaging about their budding friendship is how the two of them, regardless of the inherent danger (mostly on Arrietty's side) find something in the other that makes them feel complete. It is easy to understand Arrietty's point of view since she has only ever had her parents to confide in before meeting Shawn (it is rumored that there aren't very many borrowers left), she is simply looking for a friend and a gateway into the world of the humans who she has always been fascinated with. Shawn on the other hand is the more complicated one.

His ailment isn't exactly a secret, we see him laid up in bed and incredibly weak whenever he has to move about the house. But there is a sadness to him that goes well beyond his physical health, something that isn't really explored in much detail but is hinted towards enough that we understand his need to believe what he saw in that garden was real. This, like all Studio Ghibli productions, isn't just about them though, they are more or less the central focus but there is just so much more to appreciate where ever you look. Arrietty's parents for instance, especially her father, are fully realized characters who help provide an emotional center for her. Her love for her father is quite endearing and I challenge any father to not get just a wee bit choked up when she cheers him on while he shows her how a real borrower works. Even her mother who is saddled with the more stereotypical traits never crossed the line with her constant worrying. She acted as any mother would which only added to the idea that they are a loving family just trying to survive. Their story of survival in a world much bigger than them hinges on our ability to believe in them as real people despite their size which succeeds because of their strong family ties as well as the intricately crafted world they live in.

The borrowers live in constant fear that they someday might be found.

The attention to detail throughout the film is extraordinary. Although the story isn't what one would call epic, the world that Arrietty inhabits is never the less consistently stunning to behold. This isn't the first time we have seen the world through a set of miniature eyes (Honey I Shrunk the Kids springs to mind), but it is the first time where nothing felt artificial or exaggerated to me. That may sound strange when talking about an animated feature where nothing is real beyond what we let our imagination tell us, but its the truth. There are some truly awe inspiring moments such as when Arrietty first enters the kitchen and we get this wide shot of the whole room with her tiny figure at the center. The way the camera cuts to all the different appliances in the room and how the music cuts out so that all we hear are the over amplified sounds of the inner machinery or the creeks in the flooring. Simple sounds that we pay little attention to ourselves become almost threatening when heard from the perspective of Arrietty.

Those moments comprised probably my favorite aspects of the whole film. As much as I loved the characters, the art and the story I found myself mostly intrigued when we got to see the borrowers interact with the human world. The aforementioned kitchen scene where we watched Arrietty's father traverse the room was elegant in its simplicity. How he used double sided tape as a means to ascend up the side of a table leg or used an electric outlet as a hidden door into the wall are those little touches that help add just the right amount of realism to a film featuring 4 inch tall people and those touches are everywhere. When they sit down for dinner at the table and Arrietty's mother pours tea out of the kettle it comes out in droplets instead of a steady stream of liquid or when Arrietty picks up a rollie pollie and proceeds to use it as a ball when it rolls up. I love that stuff and I never ceased to get a kick out of it whenever those moments would pop up.

Arrietty may be small but her fearlessness knows no bounds.

Lastly is something that every Studio Ghibli animated feature has in spades ever since their humble beginnings of which Arrietty holds true to as well. I am talking about the delightfully good-natured feeling that pervades all their work. There is just something so honest and sincere about the stories they tell and the characters that populate their films. Arrietty is no different in this regard with a very easy going flow to the events that unfold and although there are what some might call villainous types of characters that do pop up they quickly reveal themselves to be much more than your simple single minded antagonist. I love how this and all their films are able to tell their stories without the usual crux beholden to many other animated features where the conflict is brought on by an evil person who creates a dire situation in which our main characters must save the day and discover their true potential through the vanquishing of said evil doer. There is none of that in Arrietty nor any of their films, at least it is never as cut as dry as that and provides a much more natural string of events that help our protagonists discover themselves in a much more believable manner. It is a strange thing to ponder over but there really are very few films that DO NOT feature a villain of some sort and the fact that Arrietty (as well as their other films) do not succumb to that trap is very refreshing.

I want to reiterate something before I end this review. I mentioned earlier that this is not one of the best films produced by Studio Ghibli and while I stand by that statement completely I just want to clarify what I meant by that exactly. When compared to other films put out by the studio it does lack certain key ingredients found in almost all their other features. There are hardly any side stories or incidents that pop up that steer the narrative in a completely different direction. This is probably the smallest (once again, pun intended) core group of characters I have ever seen in one of their films which results in a much more tightly focused yet reduced in scale story. This is a clear cut case of what you see is what you get. I understand that for some that may not be enough but to them I say lighten the hell up cause none of that matters in the grand scheme of things. The Secret World of Arrietty is every bit as strong a film as all their other works and deserves to be recognized for its many accomplishments as opposed to its lack of signature Ghibli trademarks. It has everything I require out of a Studio Ghibli film, it has beautiful visuals, fun and relatable characters that show a great deal of growth, a world full of imagination and most of all a big heart. Anyone that needs more than that to fully appreciate what the film has to offer is beyond any help or advice I can give. To everyone else, if you want to see what will most likely be one of the best films of this year I suggest you...




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