Monday, 20 February 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty (A Review)

Whimsical...I've really overused that word to describe Studio Ghibli films... but damn it! Seeing as how I've misplaced my thesaurus, I'll just go on and say it. The Secret World of Arrietty is one frickin' whimsical piece 'o film!

The mere fact that I see posters for this movie fills me with joy
I have so much to thank Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter for. Miyazaki for making such fantastical films, and Lasseter for bringing these gems to western audiences. The Secret World of Arrietty is the latest film to pop up from Miyazaki and the hard working folks at Studio Ghibli, and it's everything you'd expect from a Studio Ghibli film in terms of quality. And with Arrietty, Lasseter and Disney are making the biggest push yet for a theatrical release of a Ghibli film outside of Japan (1200 screens in the US alone.) From a producer's standpoint it might be seen as a bit of a gamble, not only because it's a foreign film, but also because it's a 2D animated film in a culture where currently CG toons reign supreme. But Disney has faith this film will do well with western audiences, and after seeing the film myself I would to. Simply put, it's up there with some of Studio Ghibli's best works yet, and that truly is saying something.

First, just a quick note about dubs. I know this film isn't exactly new, having been released in 2010 in it's original Japanese. I also know that some theatres had a choice between the Americanized dub or Japanese with subtitles. Now, normally with anime I'm a "subs b4 dubs" kind of guy, but with a limited release like this I only had the option for the dubbed version where I'm living, so that's the version I'm reviewing. That being said, Ghibli is known to put extra time and effort into quality dubbing, and the voices here (for the most part) weren't distracting and actually fit the characters quite well. Apparently there's also a dub featuring UK voice actors, and I'd be interested to see that version as well as the original Japanese in the future. Now, let's get on with the film!

This picture practically oozes whimsy!
They really couldn't have picked a better source material to push to western audiences. The story is loosely based on the much loved book by Mary Norton, The Borrowers, about a race of miniature people who live in houses and take small things that human's won't notice missing in order to survive. It's a source material many western audiences would have already known growing up, and as luck would have it, it also happens to fit Ghibli's whimsical (there's that word again) style like a glove. 

In just the couple of minutes we're introduced to our titular character, Arrietty, and she is chock full of the type of zest and charm that Ghibli is known for when portraying their heroines. Soon we meet her family: the worry-sick mother and stoic father. And again, I'm reminded of why Ghibli is just a master when is comes to characters, because I instantly love this miniature family. Ghibli knows how to combine a solid script with top notch character animation, making these characters really seem unique, quirky and special. And even though the cast is small (no pun intented) it goes on to give every character a moment to shine, like meddlesome caretaker Hara, her chubby cat, or the wild borrower, Spiller. Shawn, the human boy character was the only character who took me a bit of time to warm up to, but I think that's mainly due to the dubbing, making some of his earlier lines walk a line between charming and creepy. But hey! Without spoiling anything, it's hard not to feel for the guy by the time the end credits roll.

And everybody's jealous of Arrietty's whimsical room
The tone of the film is any interesting one. It's not exactly an "action packed adventure" like Ghibli's Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, nor is it the graceful, daydream-like pace of My Neighbor Totoro: it's somewhere in between the two. It's a good balance that I feel will appeal to a wide range of people, having quiet moments about loneliness and friendship balanced out with a fight for survival in epic miniature proportions. All of this is wrapped up in a beautiful package. The backgrounds look painstakingly beautiful (especially when seeing the grass and plants from the miniature size of a borrower.) The music is warm and lighthearted. It makes it hard not to get sucked into this tiny world.

If it's being shown where you are, I highly suggest checking this one out in theatres, not only to promote foreign animation, but to show Disney that there is still in fact a market for quality 2D works. This is a true gem for family films. The story is wonderfully heartwarming, and it's a welcome change of pace from the onslaught of American done animated features both in terms of tone and hand drawn beauty. Every element is a joy, and it all works together to make this a charming and magical little story. (That time the pun was intended.)


- Moo