Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

From those who brought us Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle, we have The Secret World of Arrietty. This tale is that of the Borrowers, a fictional race of little people so small that they live underneath our floorboards, are chased by housecats, and, when all the big people are asleep, cleverly sneak out to take things from us. A sugar cube here, a tissue there... Anything can be used in their homes. Staples can function as a ladder. Nails can act as impromptu bridges when half-stuck in the wall. They take only that which won't get noticed; they don't want to be discovered by the humans. The Secret World of Arrietty focuses on the character of Arrietty, only daughter of her family, and just now reaching the age where she can be trusted to go out and “borrow” for the family.

The Wonders of Japanese Animation

As one might expect from Studio Ghibli and the Japanese approach to storytelling, the world of Arrietty is a wondrous one, and is detailed brilliantly. Leaves sparkle in the morning, the dew moving aside as Arrietty climbs among them. Blades of grass wave elegantly in the wind. Even something that you would expect to be drab and uninteresting, such as the messy area underneath your house or between the walls, becomes a vibrant new region to be explored, a place both sobering and extraordinary from the perspective of such tiny people. Their resourcefulness adds a layer of interest to this world, as they construct improvised elevators, pulley systems, and use grappling hooks and rope to get to wherever they need to go.

Having the story take place at a Japanese cottage in the middle of a forest adds to the mystique of the film. Arrietty, her father, and her mother live a comfortable and adventurous life beneath one of the house's floorboards, in a house created from the various doodads and knickknacks acquired from all over the house. All of this is done without catching the eye of the house's actual inhabitants, an older woman and her caretaker. What propels the plot into motion at the beginning of the film is the arrival of a young boy who is intended to relax at the home before his heart surgery takes place.

Plot Assessment

My immediate reaction upon finishing this film was the gut feeling that it should have been renamed, “The Perils of Permissive Parenting”. Arrietty is a wilful and curious girl who is more than willing to explore the limits of her surroundings. She's daring yet vulnerable. She's an ideal protagonist, and one who we can all empathize with. However, she's also prone to doing some stupid things. This can be expected and sympathized with, as she's an impressionable young girl who is exploring a world both wondrous and foreign to her. The key problem here is her pursuit of a bizarre sort of friendship with the new boy of the house, a grown human.

For the record, up until the point of the movie where this happens, the Borrowers have pretty much treated the humans as that which they must not meet, encounter, or talk to. If they were discovered, it would be tantamount to Armageddon. Their very roof could be ripped off their house. They could be captured, put on display, or simply smashed into a bloody pulp like rats. It is hard to overstate how crucial it is to the Borrowers' survival that they not be discovered. Arrietty's failure can be excused by virtue of her naivete and good intentions, flawed as they are.

The real question is what the hell is up with her parents? Upon hearing that Arrietty was spotted by a human, they warn her that she should keep a low profile for a while and give no proof that they exist. Arrietty ruins that within ten minutes. In response, her parents collectively shrug their shoulders and decide to move without telling her. What?! Arrietty isn't punished; she is single-handedly responsible for visiting Armageddon upon her family, and she isn't even told she did anything wrong. Her continuing engagement with the human is permitted or ignored.

Let me try to describe how absurd this is. Imagine living in occupied France during World War II as a Jewish family hiding amongst the Nazis. If you are discovered, you are dead. Your daughter starts making herself known to a sympathetic Nazi youth, but a Nazi all the same. You tell her not to do it again. She does it again. What would you do? I'll tell you that you'd be absolutely insane to simply roll your eyes and then start slowly making arrangements to move without getting on your daughter's case for it. On the contrary, you'd freak the hell out. Your entire family could get captured and brutally murdered if this Nazi boy even utters a peep to anyone or, god forbid, starts taking an active interest in finding out where you live so he can start giving you things (thus prompting curiosity among other Nazis as to where the stuff is going). Which does happen in this movie, by the way.


Other things seemed a bit off with regard to how the humans react when they discover that the Borrowers exist. They don't seem too shocked, instead, for the most part, simply smiling and saying that they knew it all along. Tell me: if you went to Ireland and happened across a real-life leprechaun, would you simply pop a grin and say you weren't surprised? I find it highly unlikely. Instead, you'd likely spaz out and question everything. Hell, you'd probably want to run away or even attack it. People have a tendency to fear and push away that which is new and strange, thus making me raise an eyebrow to the reaction of humans to the Borrowers in this movie.

Despite my nitpicks, however, The Secret World of Arrietty was a pretty good movie. It is hard to emphasize enough how curious and remarkable that “secret world” is, and it'll make you look at your house and backyard differently. It captures the wonder that we come to expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli while still telling an interesting story, even with all its quirks. Was it as good as the epic Mononoke or Howl's? No, but it was better than Spirited Away, and is better than the vast majority Disney cartoons or animation you've seen in theaters over the past decade. If you are in the mood for a lighthearted, cute, thought-provoking film, you can hardly do much better than this.

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