There were these old, Christian, animated shorts I used to find on TV when I got home from school. They always told a bland message in the most palatable way possible, mixing decent animation with a calm soothing tone to further convince me of the necessity of Christ in my life. The messages never really stuck, but it was a pleasant enough way to spend the afternoon, even if I could have been watching something that would really stick with me.
After forty minutes of The Secret World of Arrietty I thought I was watching something far and away from the sort of bored ways I whittled away warm afternoons. The world director Hiromasa Yonebayashi felt delicate and worth preserving, like the memories of summers I spent in South Carolina exploring the woods filled with spanish moss and the ocassional hound dog. It was the best environment, filled with new sights but never any overt danger.
But, somewhere along the way, screenwriter and animation god Hayao Miyazaki decided to tumble up the world with a conflict pitting the gorgeous world of the tiny Borrowers against our normal world of petty humans. This isn't a story that needed to pit anyone against anyone with an environment so gorgeously realized. Instead, the world should have been allowed to continue breathing with its own wonder instead of forcing trouble where it need not exist.
The Secret World of Arrietty borrows heavily from the novel, The Borrowers, and depending on which version you watch will have a vastly different voice cast. Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is ready to go on her first "Borrow", a rite of passage for her very tiny people where they scavenge what they need to survive from the big people. New to the home where she and her family have set up camp is Shawn (David Hernie), a boy who would prefer to wander around nature but is stricken by one of those mysterious plot-related maladies that give way to broad gestures about staying strong.
It's not common for children's films to deal with death as directly as they do in Arrietty, but even with Shawn's heart failing there is nothing of interest in the big people's side of the plot. He discovers the existence of the Borrowers but doesn't do much with that information other than stare at Arrietty and silence and whisper the ocassional line about how beautiful everything is. His mom vanished because she's "on business and recently divorced", two developments I had a very hard time accepting what with her son's surgery coming up in a week. The only person of interest in the big world is the increasingly unhinged Hara (Carol Burnett), who just wants to prove the little people exist and gets the only laugh out loud funny line in the film which also speaks to her mental stability.
Prior to the interaction between the two worlds it is, by god, a gorgeous movie to behold. The animation plays with the scale of the Borrowers beautifully, creating luxurious spaces underneath and around the home with layers of light darting through and a vast home to explore. The journey Arrietty takes on her first Borrow is a wonderful sequence with numerous joyful surprises at the way size and scope of the home can change so radically from such a small perspective.
The sound design is the other star of the film and plays into the great conclusion of that first Borrow in a surprising way. The way water hits the ground, the way a clock ticks or. say, the way a human heart beats are all emphasized to match the Borrowers tiny world. I felt like I was enjoying a summer storm many times in those first two acts, relaxing along with the rest of the characters.But the quality of the animation and character designs is a separate matter. Studio Ghibli has run into the same problem Disney Animation did with their characters in the late '90s. I feel like I've seen all these people before. Arrietty reminds me too much of the plucky Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service, the crazy Hara is clearly modeled in part after the grotesque witch from Spirited Away, and Shawn looks like any other bland Ghibli male lead. The backgrounds and incidental animation are gorgeous, but our characters are so normalized within their output there isn't much to say about them.
Even my much beloved sense of scale is thrown out the window after the forty minute mark because the film has to suit the big humans as well and cannot establish a convincing size. Sometimes Arrietty is larger that Shawn's fingers and sometimes she can barely size herself up against his nail. This confusion carries over into the sound design, where Arrietty and Shawn can hear each other just fine but the screams of other people of either size go completely unnoticed.
At the end is another redundant, if pleasing, message about staying strong in the darkest of times. It's a lesson worth knowing and certainly needs to be repeated at times, but not in such a straightforward way in such a simple film. I don't always need moral relativism and excitement in my Ghibli productions, but don't tempt me with a gorgeous world just to bend the plots to the whims of an insane character. That rabbit hole is no more fun to follow her down into than it is to spend time watching fallen leaves.