The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest from Studio Ghibli, is not the work of Hayao Miyazaki, though the acclaimed director had a hand in the film’s script. Directed by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the film contains much of the same heart and spirit as Miyazaki’s works. Arrietty is not action-packed by any means, instead going for a more understated approach that may not be exciting, but makes for one of the classier family movies you’re likely to find.
In many ways, the film’s restrained approach is both a boon and a drawback. It’s refreshing to see a film made primarily for children that isn’t flush with talking CGI animals and poop jokes. But at the same time, Arrietty is a movie where not a whole lot happens. The film’s simple plot comes across as a bit too simple, and the film’s languid pacing and lack of any real driving force goes has a tendency to make Arrietty feel a bit drawn out.
The story—based on Mary Norton’s children’s book, The Borrowers—involves a family of tiny people called “Borrowers,” who survive underneath houses by taking household objects—sugar cubes, tissue, and the like. The biggest rule that Borrowers must live by is to never be seen by humans, which is violated by the young Arrietty (voiced by TV actress Bridgit Mendler) on her first borrowing. She’s spotted by Shawn (voiced by TV actor David Henrie), a young boy who’s just recently moved into the same house. Because they’ve been spotted, Arrietty and her parents must decide if they want to abandon their home for good, since we’re told humans have tendency to cause trouble for Borrowers.
Despite Shawn’s best intentions in wanting to help Arrietty and her family, things soon begin to go awry for them. It doesn’t help that another Borrower family who once lived in the same house has gone missing in the past. This specter of death—or perhaps more accurately, finality—hangs over the film, in both the simple, understated danger that lies ahead for the Borrowers, but in Shawn’s own mortality (and his awareness of it) in the form of a heart defect. Arrietty is shrewd in the way it handles the dangers of death, never being mawkish or overly dramatic, but never shying away from the topic.
There’s no real antagonist other than the house’s maid (voiced by Carol Burnett) who wishes to prove the existence of—and to capture—the Borrowers, but she’s more annoying than actually menacing, and this only takes up a brief bit of the movie. The ending is simple, and while not the happy ending one might expect it, is dead-on in its bittersweetness. But even at a slim 94 minutes, there’s still a gnawing feeling that Arrietty could be shorn of some fat—something that keeps the film from being great, but doesn’t stop it from being quite good. Rated G.