This import from Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, which produced "Princess Mononoke" and "Ponyo," has its roots in a well-known English children's story. Based on "The Borrowers," a series of books by Mary Norton, it tells the story of a family of tiny people living under the floorboards of a house who forage for their necessities on nightly adventures. They live under the constant threat of interaction with humans (called "beans," as an abbreviation of "human beings"), whom they both rely on and mistrust.
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a young Borrower who is just old enough to go out on her first scavenging effort, called a "borrowing." Right around this time, there is a new arrival. Young Shawn (David Henrie) has been sent to the family's country house, set on an unpaved road away from the moderate bustle of a nearby suburb. Shawn is under orders to rest in advance of a risky but necessary heart operation, and the family's longtime maid, Hara (Carol Burnett) is tasked with seeing to his needs. Sadly, Shawn's parents are divorced, and his mother is too busy with her career to stay with him during this waiting period, so he is driven to the house by a favorite aunt.
Arrietty and Shawn meet on the night of her first borrowing. He spies her trying to pull out a single facial tissue from a box, and he is instantly smitten. He does his best to make contact with her, but her father Pod (Will Arnett) is strict and her mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), is paranoid about big people. The movie unspools in two directions. First, the family of Borrowers must prepare to move now that they know Shawn is aware of their presence. Second, housemaid Hara, who believes in the Borrowers, but is resentful of their existence, wants to root out and expel the family.
The youngest moviegoers will enjoy the simple but attractive characterizations. Arrietty is spunky, her father is wise, her mother is fearful, Shawn is fatalistic but goodhearted, and Hara is judgmental and interfering. There is a philosophical dimension to the interactions between Arrietty and Shawn. He's grown to accept that his heart defect may claim his life, while Arrietty, though she faces a perilous road, is determined to survive. Shawn is ultimately inspired by Arrietty's gumption, but their colloquy on the question of fate versus free will probably strike older children (and grownups) as a bit obvious.
The real joy here is the animation. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi pays a lot of attention to matters of scale. It's wonderful to watch Arrietty scamper across a swath of lawn, with a loping cat hot on her heels. The contrivances used by the family on their borrowings are a delight — including crampons made of Scotch tape used for scaling walls, and grappling hooks made from old earrings. The animators find a universe of possibility in this rustic Japanese house and its grounds, full of lush color, tiny creatures and unexpected dangers.
While adults and older children likely won't be on tenterhooks waiting to see how the story comes out, "The Secret World of Arrietty" is a simple-hearted and gentle story for younger kids.
TITLE: "The Secret World of Arrietty"
CREDITS: Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. Based on the children's book "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton
RATING: G, but divorce and the inevitability of death receive frank treatment
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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