‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ is another Ghibli gem, critics say

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Legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (‘Spirited Away,’ ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’) and his animation house Studio Ghibli rarely miss the mark, and their latest effort, ‘The Secret World of Arrietty,’ appears to be no exception. Based on Mary Norton’s beloved 1952 novel ‘The Borrowers,’ about a family of miniature people who live in a world hidden from ordinary humans, ‘Arrietty’ has garnered excellent reviews.

The Times’ Kenneth Turan calls ‘Arrietty’ ‘impeccable,’ a film that ‘will make believers out of adults and children alike.’ Turan notes that although Miyazaki did not direct the film, he did conceive it, write the screenplay and hand-pick director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who makes his feature debut. The film, Turan writes, features many Ghibli trademarks, ‘including a reverence for the natural world and the ability to reproduce it in ravishing, hand-drawn animation detail,’ as well as ‘an intrepid female hero’ (the eponymous Arrietty, voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the U.S. version). Turan commends Yonebayashi for injecting peril and depth into its charming story, and most of all for creating ‘a special and marvelous world for audiences to enter.’

Amy Joyce of the Washington Post finds ‘Arrietty’ to be a treat for adults and children alike. She says, ‘this gorgeous little movie is sure to be beloved by your little people, who may discover what it means to find a magical beauty in the things we can’t altogether see.’ For Joyce, the film is a welcome change from the usual Hollywood fare, which is often tricked out in 3-D or ‘Pixared-to-death.’ Even the film’s shortcomings are minor infractions: ‘There’s not as much of an edge-of-the-seat factor as in some of Miyazaki’s other films — or in most box office hits these days. But do audiences need to be, well, blown away? Can’t they actually enjoy a relatively quiet movie?’ Steven James Snyder of Time writes that ‘Unlike so many Studio Ghibli escapes, which liberate the viewer from the confines of reality, ‘Arrietty’ brings the same magic to the mundane, elevating the ordinary confines of everyday life into sumptuous surprises.’ Snyder praises ‘the care with which ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ has been assembled,’ including tiny details like ‘the mannerisms of the housecat who gradually warms up to the girl’ and big ideas like the ‘gutsy handling of such potent issues as xenophobia, terminal illness and ecological decay.’

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis points out that while bold, adventurous young heroines are rare in American animation, ‘girls have long reigned’ at Ghibli. Like Turan, Dargis applauds Yonebayashi’s handling of ‘the theme of the tiny making wonderfully do in a world inhabited by, and made for, the big (like parents),’ adding that ‘Mr. Yonebayashi fills in this hidden realm with fanciful dollhouse detail.’ Dargis has a few quibbles, namely that the story isn’t as rich or complex as the book, and that there is ‘a smidgen too much shrill comedy.’


Other reviewers too have found the film a bit light, though successful on the whole. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Amy Biancolli says that ‘the overall sum [of ‘Arrietty’] is enchantment,’ but adds: ‘What’s missing is any real menace — the signature Miyazaki freak factor that turns spirits into monsters and parents into pigs. An overeager housekeeper and a pair of exterminators constitute the film’s biggest threats.’

And Aaron Hillis of the Village Voice writes, ‘Within the Ghibli catalog, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s delicate debut … is an underplotted, near-humorless trifle, but in contrast to the shrill, saccharine CGI cartoons — live-action included — that pass for family entertainment today, it’s pure magic.’

Despite Ghibli’s continued success, the studio’s films tend to fly a bit under the radar, especially compared with whiz-bang Hollywood productions. Perhaps with a little luck, the secret of ‘Arrietty’ won’t remain so for long.


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—Oliver Gettell