"Wonder" is the watchword in "The Secret World of Arrietty." Set in an enchanting locale where the potential for magic is everywhere, this impeccable animated film puts its complete trust in the spirit of make-believe. Beautiful, gentle and pure — but not without elements of genuine menace — it will make believers out of adults and children alike.
Based on Mary Norton's celebrated 1952 novel "The Borrowers," "The Secret World of Arrietty" has been on the mind of Japan's Hayao Miyazaki, the great animator of the modern age, for more than 40 years. He did not direct this version himself, but having planned and written the screenplay and hand-picking director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Miyazaki and his elevating, protective spirit hover over this production like a most benevolent deity.
"Arrietty," the feature debut of Yonebayashi, has many of the trademarks of Miyazaki's magical Studio Ghibli productions, including a reverence for the natural world and the ability to reproduce it in ravishing, hand-drawn animation detail.
Like the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and other Miyazaki works, this film also features an intrepid female hero, a 14-year-old girl brimming with bravery, energy and life. Only this time she is no taller than a teacup.
That would be Arrietty, one of a race of tiny gleaners who, in novelist Norton's splendid notion, manage to live alongside standard-sized people by means of adroit pilferage of minuscule amounts of human supplies. "Borrowers take only what they need," says Arrietty's stoic dad, Pod, sternly, and he never strays from the creed.
Arrietty is bold, however, and doesn't really believe her cautious father and her worrying mother when they tell her "the world is a dangerous place for a borrower." Living with her family in a tiny but comfortable space below the floorboards of a Japanese country house, Arrietty brazenly runs through the garden in full daylight on daring foraging expeditions, fending off menacing grasshoppers and outfoxing an apoplectic cat.
One pleasure of this film is how splendidly detailed director Yonebayashi and his team have made this small, small world. The rope and duct tape logistics involved in a borrower raid into human territory are formidable, and the little people involved need to be part mountain climber and part Navy SEAL commando to have even a chance of success. And all to get a single lump of sugar that will last for months.
On her first official borrowers mission, Arrietty finds a dressmaker's pin that is the perfect size for a weapon. She also gets seen by Shawn, a 14-year-old boy newly arrived at the house. A sickly lad, neglected by his parents, Shawn has been sent to the country to rest up before heart surgery.
Shawn is captivated by his glimpse of Arrietty, as who wouldn't be, and though he and Arrietty would like to pursue a friendship, father Pod is adamant that this kind of thing never works. "Many borrowers have lost their lives," he tells her, "thinking the same."
Though its overall tone is charming, the film has been able to work disturbing peril into its scenario, both from the natural world — a fierce crow is determined to eat Arrietty at all costs — and, more intriguingly, from humans, who by virtue of their size create chaos for the borrowers without even meaning to. It's a tribute to how real this universe has been made onscreen that the film makes us genuinely fear for the borrowers' lives even though we know we don't really have to.
Under the title "The Borrower Arrietty," this film became 2010's top-grossing film in Japan, and considerable work has been done to make sure that similar success happens in Western territories. The script has been adapted to English-language sensibilities by Karey Kirkpatrick, and he and U.S. director Gary Rydstrom have taken great care to match the English words to Japanese lip movements as closely as possible.
Disney has even hired different voice casts for this country and the British Isles. Over there, the actors used included such feature names as Saoirse Ronan, Phyllida Law and Mark Strong, while the excellent U.S. cast is better known for its TV experience. Bridgit Mendler and David Henrie as Arrietty and Shawn have "Wizards of Waverly Place" credits, Arrietty's parents are played by real-life married couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett gets to have fun as busybody housekeeper Haru.
All this meticulous audience-tailoring aside, what makes "The Secret World of Arrietty" transporting in this country is the same thing that made it succeed in Japan: the film's ability to create a special and marvelous world for audiences to enter. At the screening I attended, no one rushed to leave their seats after the last frame disappeared from the screen. Everyone wanted to hold on to the special feelings "Arrietty" created for as long as possible, and who can blame them for that?