'The Secret World of Arrietty' review: Don't expect to be spirited away

EntertainmentArts and CultureLiteratureMoviesHayao MiyazakiJohn GoodmanWill Arnett

** (out of four)

The borrowers of Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s novel “The Borrowers” and its Japanese animated big-screen adaptation “The Secret World of Arrietty” aren’t actually borrowers. They’re teeny, tiny thieves who live under people’s floors and swipe items like soap, cookies and sugar cubes to sustain themselves, with no intention of returning what they take. As the (nonexistent) proverb goes, “If you’re going to steal, be cute enough to get away with it.”

Thirteen-year-old Arrietty (voiced by 19-year-old Bridgit Mendler of Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place”) excitedly accompanies her father (Will Arnett) on her first borrowing, where she snags a needle that she repurposes as a sword. The trouble comes when she spots human kid Shawn (David Henrie), who’d be happy to spark a friendship with the miniature teen if she didn’t scamper off quickly, thanks to years of rhetoric from mom (Arnett’s real-life wife Amy Poehler) and dad about the danger of people. Can Shawn and Arriety break through years of misunderstanding between tiny people and their much, much bigger roommates before Shawn’s cat eats Arriety and her parents?

“Arrietty” (adapted as a live-action version of “The Borrowers” in 1997 starring John Goodman) comes from the studio behind co-writer Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved films like “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke,” but it’s time to stop giving Studio Ghibli a free pass. Although better than 2008’s wildly overrated “Ponyo,” “Arrietty” offers no magic, only slow-paced seriousness in exploring a world that’s exactly the same as ours, just smaller. The studio always delivers memorably detailed moments, like when Arrietty and her dad use nails as stairs. Yet the movie never feels like a discovery, only a very non-playful detour into a sad story that doesn’t work at feature length. Say what you want about “Honey! I Shrunk the Kids,” but it’s never in danger of putting you to sleep.

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