By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—This beautifully animated children’s movie based on Mary Norton’s series of Borrowers books was produced by Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli, best known for its 2001 Oscar-winning feature “Spirited Away.” Like that movie, the version of “The Secret World of Arrietty” that will be in US theaters has been re-voiced by actors in English as a co-production with Disney. One advantage of eliminating the need for subtitles is that viewers have more time to enjoy the full splendor of the film’s gorgeous pen-and-ink, painted and computer-generated artwork, which rivals Disney’s best.
Borrowers are tiny people only a few inches tall who secretly live in the houses of humans, “borrowing” what they need to survive: a lump of sugar here, a tissue there. The film’s three-person family resides in a cleverly furnished miniature apartment under the floorboards of a Japanese country home. An upturned flower pot is their fireplace chimney, and postage stamps are big enough to serve as posters on the walls.
The small but indomitable Arrietty (voiced by Disney Channel “Wizards of Waverly Place” star Bridgit Mendler) is the almost-14-year-old daughter of an unflappably reasonable father named Pod (Will Arnett) and an easily excited mother named Homily (Amy Poehler). When Arrietty accidentally allows herself to be seen by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly human boy who is resting at the house before an important operation, her family worries that they may have to move in order to remain safe.
What differentiates the movie from more manic kids’ fare is that Shawn is quietly patient, gentle natured and wistfully melancholy. He is so good hearted and sincere that he seems wise beyond his years and fully deserving of Arrietty’s eventual trust. Also, children will appreciate the condescension-free faith that Arrietty’s no-nonsense father displays when he takes her on her first adventurous night-time “borrowing” run.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” is less bizarrely dreamlike and literally more down to earth than most Studio Ghibli movies (which also include “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Ponyo”). Even though it features miniature fantasy characters so small they can fit under leaves and must keep clear of the cat, there’s a relatable realism to most of their personalities and predicaments that keeps them from seeming silly.
The alternately adventurous and affecting screenplay is by Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote and directed all of the Studio Ghibli movies mentioned above as well as many others. Longtime studio animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who makes his feature directing debut here, is as good at staging furtive quests by the Borrowers as he is at showing the development of Arrietty’s tentative and tender relationship with Shawn.
Only two characters are played with the unnaturally broad cartoonishness associated with less understated “Japanimation” films. Arrietty’s mother is prone to pop-eyed hysterics, and a nastily loony housekeeper named Hara (Carol Burnett) wants to capture the Borrowers to prove she isn’t crazy. Both serve as different forms of comic relief, but it’s hard not to wish they had been rendered with the same believability as other members of the cast.
Interestingly, the movie was released last year in the UK (as simply “Arrietty”) with a completely different voice cast that included Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty, Mark Strong as her father and Olivia Colman as her mother, marking the first time any Studio Ghibli film has appeared in more than one English version.
This intriguing and thoughtfully told tale of courage, friendship and loyalty is the perfect all-ages film for families everywhere. “The Secret World of Arrietty” opens Friday, Feb. 17.[Rating: 4 stars]