"My heart is stronger now because you're in it."
Studio Ghibli produces films that are pure magic in every sense of the word. Founded in the mid-80s by directors Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata, they have churned out amazing animated films every few years since: Naussica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and most recently Ponyo. If you haven't seen any of these films, you're truly missing out on the best cinema being produced anywhere in the world. Up until this year's Cars 2, Pixar was the only other studio with a streak of quality films to match it.
One of the things that makes their films so unique is the lack of a true antagonist in almost all of their films. It's a really odd thing to say, but the filmmakers at Studio Ghibli shirk the traditional dramatic structure, and virtually all of their films are devoid of an antagonist. More than anything else, the films tend to be about people, often children, finding their place in the world and trying to make sense of a world that adults have more or less ruined, or are in the process of ruining, and their latest film is no exception. First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi brings us The Secret World of Arrietty loosely adapted from the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. (For the sake of ease, I'll be listing the voice actors from the American dub, since that is the version most readily available her in the States).
Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a fourteen year-old girl who lives with her father Pod (Will Arnett) and mother Homily (Amy Poehler). They are a normal family, except for the fact that they are about four inches tall, and live in the floor of a house owned by regular sized human beings. They make their existence as "borrowers" by entering the house at night when everyone's asleep, and taking small bits of things that they need to survive, and the human "beans," as they call them, won't miss like a sugar cube or a tissue. The home they live in is owned by Sadako (Grace Poletti), who's nephew Shawn (David Henrie, not sure why they Anglicized his name as that's never been their practice in the past and his name in the original is Sho) has come to live with her for some peace and quiet prior to having an operation on his heart. Shawn is looked after by the elderly housekeeper Haru (Carol Burnett) who has a sneaking suspicion that there are little people living under the house, but everyone just thinks she's a senile old lady.
When the film opens, Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing excursion with her father. Their trek through the interior walls of the house is breathtaking. It adds an element of danger and surprise to something as mundane as interior walls. Arrietty discovers a sewing pin along the way, and keeps it as a sword in her skirt (if there were any justice in this world, I'd see the neighborhood populated with girls dressed like Arrietty this Halloween with oversized clips in their hair and a giant sewing pin attached to their belts, but I digress). Everything is going well on her first excursion as they procure a sugar cube from the kitchen and then head upstairs to get a tissue for Homily. Arrietty and her father enter the bedroom through a dollhouse that takes Arrietty's breath away, as she marvels at the rooms and furniture seemingly designed just for people their size, but her father warns her that they can only take things that will go unnoticed by the beans.
When she and her father are about to grab the tissue and be on their way, Arrietty sees Shawn in his bed staring at them. She drops the sugar cube in fright and she and her father scamper back to their home. The next day when Arrietty is sitting out by the backyard of the house, Shawn brings the sugar cube, along with a note reading "you forgot something" and leaves it by the grate they use to enter their house. Arrietty is curious and wants to start a friendship with the boy, but her parents warn her that once a borrower is seen by a bean, they must look for a new place to live, as the beans curiosity will lead them to stop at nothing in getting rid of the borrowers.
The film then becomes a journey of two children from different worlds trying to convince their elders that not everything is as it seems, and just because things have been one way for so long, doesn't make that the right way to live. The animation style is amazing, in typical Ghibli fashion. It makes the mundane seem wondrous in ways I never thought possible. The way it balances the two different scales of the two different worlds the characters live in is remarkable. The film moves at a very leisurely pace, but it's never boring. Clementine was enthralled the entire time, and I feel that adults are probably more likely to get bored with it than children. The events are not ones that can work themselves out in a matter of minutes in screen time, and the film gives the problem solving the time it needs to work the conflict out in a truthful way.
As I said, there's no real antagonist in the story. When Haru discovers the borrowers, she becomes a minor antagonist, but she's a senile old woman, and presents no more of a real antagonist than Ponyo's father did in Ponyo; A minor threat, but not a true antagonist. It's a wonderful storytelling device and makes the film that much more enjoyable as a result of how unconventional it is. The voice talent on the English dub is excellent as well. With Arnett and Poehler, you expect there to be some sort of zany comedy afoot, but Arnett in particular has a deep, resonant voice that works very effectively as a stern but caring father.
The film is beautiful and has a wonderful message at its core. I think it's perfect for children four and older, and as I said before, I think that as much as I liked it, it is the kind of film that a child will appreciate in an entirely deeper way than their parents. The world is a big place for little people, and this film gives them someone even smaller than they are to root for, which aside from the typical anthropomorphic talking animal film, is something they don't get very often. Take your kids and go see The Secret World of Arrietty, it's better than anything else out there right now for your family.