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Secret World of Arrietty, The

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // G // May 22, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 20, 2012 | E-mail the Author
You're not going to miss a cube of sugar the size of your thumbnail or a single piece of Kleenex. That's why the tiny people who've squirreled themselves away in Sho's house call themselves borrowers rather than
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thieves. They bravely venture out in the great unknown like the explorers of old, scaling mountain-sized tables and scuttling up drapes to get the supplies they need for a happy, healthy life. Because they tend to stay out of sight, no one really knows how many -- or how few! -- borrowers are actually out there. Sho all too quickly discovers that there are at least three of 'em, though! In the weeks leading up to the open-heart surgery that will hopefully keep him alive, Sho is shuttled off by his workaholic parents to the countryside for some peace and quiet. His ticker can't handle much in the way of excitement, but that's just what he gets when he spots Arrietty, a brave fourteen-year-old girl who's all of a fraction of an inch tall and is just beginning to learn the ways of being a borrower.

Arrietty and her family live in fear of humans. After all, who knows what would happen to them -- what would happen to whatever borrowers are left, period! -- if they were to be discovered? Arrietty can't resist the temptation to learn more about this boy, though, and the two of them soon strike up a close friendship. Unfortunately, this comes as Sho realizes why the borrowers slink around in the shadows. Haru, the family's housekeeper, becomes obsessed with capturing the borrowers, and her collection starts with Arrietty's high-strung mother. A kid with a heart-condition and a half-inch heroine set out to mount a rescue, and I'm pretty sure that's how you spell a-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e.

The Secret World of Arrietty captures so much of what I've come to expect from the master craftsmen at Studio Ghibli. The hand-drawn animation is as breathtakingly gorgeous as ever, infused with a distinctive life and personality that no studio the world over can hope to match. This is an entrancingly beautiful film, and The Secret World of Arrietty is worth a recommendation if for no other reason than to show just how powerful this timeless approach to animation remains. Arrietty also revels in the themes and motifs most closely associated with Studio Ghibli. The film's title character is, after all, a determined, resourceful young girl who embarks on a remarkable journey. The film's premise swirls around familial bonds and an unseen world that lays just out of reach. Its setting is pastoral and remote, shrugging aside the hustle and bustle of the big city. There's a strong message about nature, touching here upon the destructive impact -- intentional or otherwise -- mankind can have on the creatures around him, driving some to the brink of extinction. Admittedly, the message is delivered in a clumsier, more forcefully heavy-handed way than usual, but at least that's
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largely limited to a single scene.

This is a more intimate and...well, smaller adventure than I would normally have expected from Studio Ghibli. The secrets of Arrietty's world don't include magic or the supernatural, setting aside the surreal waves of fantasy -- the wide-eyed awe -- that have been such a fixture throughout the studio's films. Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that Sho has such a muted response to everything he sees. I realize that this young boy is greatly ill and can only muster so much energy or enthusiasm, but that's taken to too far an extreme, to the point that he hardly shows much of a reaction at all for an hour and a half straight. I appreciate that the point is that Sho has all but given up on his battle with a lifelong ailment, and we're meant to see how his adventure with Arrietty gradually rekindles that spark, but I still felt as if I was being kept at arm's length from him. Arrietty herself is a brave, fiercely loyal character with a great curiosity about the world around her. She's the sort of person that's readily liked and respected, although as Arrietty isn't as well-defined as I would've liked, she doesn't resonate with me in quite the same way that Studio Ghibli's legions of other heroines so often have. The Secret World of Arrietty in general is driven more by plot than by character, and that can be troubling since the premise itself is on the thin side. The quirky supporting cast that so often season Ghibli's films is largely nudged aside here as well. Few other characters make a meaningful impression, and I'm particularly disappointed that Haru is such a bland villainess. There's no real motivation for her to cruelly trap this family of borrowers; she's going through those motions simply because The Secret World of Arrietty needs some sort of nemesis.

I think I would've enjoyed The Secret World of Arrietty quite a bit more if I hadn't been tasked with writing this review. If I weren't approaching Arrietty as any sort of critic, its stunning animation and gentle nature would've plastered a smile across my face for an hour and a half, I'd place this Blu-ray disc back on the shelf, and I likely wouldn't give it a second thought until it came time for my next Studio Ghibli marathon. The Secret World of Arrietty doesn't hold up to close scrutiny the way that so many of Ghibli's films have. There's so much about the film to admire and adore, but Arrietty is the slightest of the films I've seen with Miyazaki's name attached, and it doesn't inspire that same sense of awe and wonder that Studio Ghibli's work so often has. The Secret World of Arrietty is worthy of a place in the collections of Studio Ghibli's many legions of admirers, though I'll confess it's not a film I see myself excitedly revisiting time and time again. It's a sweet, slight confection -- its pleasures are great yet quickly forgotten -- that largely shies away from the magic and dazzling imagination that have long defined Studio Ghibli's work. Richer characterization would've made a world of difference. Not essential viewing but still very much Recommended.

All of Disney's releases of Studio Ghibli's films on Blu-ray have been achingly beautiful, and The Secret World of Arrietty is no exception. The linework is strikingly crisp and clean throughout, bolstered
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further by a lush, vibrant palette. No intrusive filtering, edge enhancement artifacts, or missteps in the compression are ever given the chance to intrude either. In a word, this high definition presentation is flawless.

The Secret World of Arrietty arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The presentation is lightly letterboxed to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and benefits from a remarkably high-bitrate AVC encode. There are slight differences between the Japanese and American presentations, and Disney accommodates these with seamless branching, making the most efficient use of the capacity available.

I'm thrilled to see that The Secret World of Arrietty offers two lossless soundtracks, both presented in 24-bit, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The disc defaults to the English dub, and the original Japanese audio is just a couple of menu clicks away. The English subtitles that optionally accompany the Japanese audio have been properly translated as well, not merely a transcription of the English dub.

As respectful as so many of Disney's dubs have been for their releases of Studio Ghibli films, the performances throughout The Secret World of Arrietty strike me as a bit too exaggerated, out of step with Arrietty's otherwise quiet, subdued tone. The original Japanese audio is a far more comfortable fit to my ears. No matter which language you choose, however, The Secret World of Arrietty sounds extraordinary. The craftsmanship behind even the most routine effects shows just how much care and affection went into the making of this film. The sound design does a marvelous job establishing a sense of scale, ensuring that something as mundane as the crawlspace under a house sounds like the backdrop for an epic adventure. Such effects as the rustling of hair against a pillow or the ticking of a grandfather clock roar from every speaker when called for. The Secret World of Arrietty seizes full advantage of every channel at its fingertips, really. Teeming with atmospheric color and fleshing out a terrific sense of directionality, Arrietty does such a brilliant job placing the audience inside the borrowers' tiny little shoes. Every last element in the mix is rendered with remarkable clarity and is balanced as perfectly as I could ever hope to hear. I just can't say enough about how phenomenal these two lossless soundtracks are, from an impressively robust low-end to the inspired way the instrumentation is spread across the soundscape. A truly outstanding effort.

Along with the other audio options mentioned earlier, The Secret World of Arrietty features a Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) dub in French, and a second English subtitle stream is captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The Secret World of Arrietty features disappointingly little in the way of extras, paling in comparison to other home video releases of the film throughout the world.
  • Original Japanese Storyboards (94 min.; HD): Rather than overlay storyboards picture-in-picture, Disney has instead
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    chosen to present a feature-length, 1080p presentation of The Secret World of Arrietty as a storyboard animatic. It's fascinating to be able to see such a lovingly crafted film emerge from these extremely rough pencil sketches, though I must admit that an hour and a half of these storyboards will likely only appeal to the most ardent Studio Ghibli fanatics.

  • Music Videos (9 min.; HD / SD): Cécile Corbel's music video for "Arrietty's Song" is presented in standard definition, while Bridgit Mendler's "Summertime" is offered in full 1080p. Also included is a two minute behind-the-scenes piece on the "Summertime" video.

  • Trailers and TV Spots (14 min.; HD): A sprawling selection of promotional material rounds out the extras.

The Secret World of Arrietty arrives on Blu-ray in an embossed slipcover. The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD, and its extras are limited to the "Summertime" music video and its making-of featurette.

The Final Word
The Secret World of Arrietty doesn't inspire the sort of wonder and hushed awe that I've come to expect from Studio Ghibli's films, instead taking a quieter, more gentle, and ultimately less memorable approach. I greatly enjoyed the film, and I'm astonished as ever at the majesty and beauty of Ghibli's animation, but The Secret World of Arrietty isn't the lingering, revelatory experience so frequently associated with the studio. Still, even lesser Ghibli outclasses most animation the world over, and The Secret World of Arrietty captures enough of that magic to ensure that this Blu-ray disc very much comes Recommended.
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