Like the perfectly detailed dollhouse meant to be their home, the tiny anime family that lives under the floor of a vaguely English cottage seems a bit behind the current era of sophisticated animation produced by Disney (responsible for its U.S. release) and Pixar. But if “The Secret World of Arrietty” is an anachronism, it is a very pretty one.
This version of “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s classic 1952 children’s book, is the latest feature from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese production company responsible for “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” So the sheer beauty of its settings, from tasteful interiors to colorful gardens, meadows and streams could well be more appealing to adult art-lovers than children accustomed to animated films peopled by rowdy robots and transformers.
The plot, of course, is another story. The daintily drawn—not computer-generated— characters belong to the Clock family—taciturn father Pod (voiced by Will Arnett), generally hysterical mother Homily (Amy Poehler) and feisty 14-year-old Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), flush with excitement at her first late-night “borrowing” adventure above the floorboards, where Pod will show her how to obtain the items on the day’s shopping list—a single lump of sugar and a tissue. For creatures as small as the Clocks, it’s like a trip to Costco!
But earlier that day, Arrietty—out for a forbidden visit to the garden—had been spied by Shawn (David Henrie) a human (or ‘bean’ as the Clocks call us) boy who has just arrived at his aunt’s cottage to rest up for a heart operation. The little people, who believe they may well be the last of their kind, live in fear of detection—not to mention predators like the family’s cat!
And their fear is well-founded. While Shawn and even his aunt welcome the idea that such creatures might exist, there is one ‘bean’ intent on destroying them. Haru, the dumpy housekeeper, voiced by Carol Burnett, with a bit too much menace is the nemesis who goes as far as hiring an exterminator to rid the house of the little “pests.” Sillier than she is frightening, however, Hara doesn’t stand a chance against clever Arrietty in partnership with Shawn, whose role as her gentle protector seems to make him stronger in every frame.
It’s a charming tale, told with the innocence of a child’s point of view. However, it seems only fair to warn that children over the age of five might not appreciate its old-fashioned sensibility. The English screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick tends toward the insipid, and for some strange reason, everyone does a lot of sighing (yes, sighing). The director was Studio Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” opened Friday (Feb. 17). It is rated G.