What was true almost a decade ago is only more true now: traditional animation is almost a thing of the past. The films produced by Japanese Studio Ghibli are among the last feature-length theatrical animated films arriving in theaters; aside from their own Ponyo, the only other 2D feature I can think of as of late is Disney's The Princess and the Frog. I'm no purist, and computer animated films produced by the major studios are routinely beautiful, but Ghibli's new film The Secret World of Arrietty is a nice reminder of the warmth and life that traditional animation can convey.
Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (a longtime Ghibli animator whose credits illustrate a nice climb up the food chain), Arrietty is an adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people living under the floorboards of a human-sized household. Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a bright, adventurous young girl who decorates her room with plants and is anxious to go on her first borrowing with her father, Pod (Will Arnett). They leave behind her nervous mother Homily (Amy Poehler) and trek into the house looking for things to borrow -- a single tissue, a cube of sugar -- that humans won't notice is missing. However, at the last minute, Arrietty is spotted by the house's newest resident, a human boy named Shawn (David Henrie).
Studio Ghibli's work has a different look than many Japanese animated films, and a film like Arrietty seems to lend itself to their strengths. Although animation lends itself to fantasy, Ghibli's animators capture a crucial sense of realism in the way they animate people. Not only does this level of mannerism observation add to the viewer's ability to relate to the characters (through a true animated "performance"), but it adds to the magic when something incredible happens. Here, said detail accentuates the items that the borrowers have taken and the world they inhabit, turning nails in a floorboard into a series of tiny walkways, or a bit of wire and a tiny lightbulb into a lantern. A house cat's demeanor is also amusingly believable. Admittedly, a couple of moments are enhanced by computer graphics, but the technology is used sparingly, and always hand-in-hand with traditional artwork.
Much like Ghibli's 1989 charmer Kiki's Delivery Service, Arrietty also provides something special in the form of its main character. Too many film heroines (among the few that exist at all) are portrayed as princesses or tomboys, but Arrietty is an all-around good role model for young girls, combining a healthy curiosity with a growing sense of responsbility and independence. Although Arrietty eventually forms a level of trust with Shawn, a nice kid who is fascinated by the borrowers, she doesn't ignore her parents warnings that many humans, like Shawn's aunt Haru (Carol Burnett) are dangerous. It helps that Mendler's performance is spot-on, capturing the character's enthusiasm and determination without seeming too false or Americanized. The same goes for the localization effort as a whole, which is on par with Disney's usual work on Ghibli films (the one sore-thumb exception being a very modern, very American pop song by Mendler that plays over the second half of the end credits, but she's so good in the lead that I can let it slide).
Audience-wise, Arrietty is potentially a tricky sell. Some of the story may play better or hit closer to home with slightly older viewers, who are closer to Arrietty's age of sixteen, and Shawn's thread turns out to be surprisingly wistful. The pacing is also a little on the slow side, making 94 minutes feel more like two hours; more interaction between Shawn and Arrietty or perhaps more of Spiller (Moises Arias), a fellow borrower who drops in Arrietty and her family might've filled the time a little more efficiently. Then again, the well-behaved kids at my screening seemed engaged enough with the film -- I couldn't help but think that a fellow critic's young daughter climbing on all the railings in the lobby afterward is about as strong an endorsement as a film like Arrietty can receive.
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