Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs this adaptation of Mary Norton‘s famed story The Borrowers. Borrowers are just like regular people, with the same form, the same drives, the same emotions, same concerns, and the same habits. The difference is that Borrowers are four inches tall. Their namesake comes from a lifestyle of borrowing “things that humans won’t notice missing”; like a tissue, a pin, a sugar cube. They use these items to survive, living under the humans’ noses, careful not to expose themselves. Pod (Will Arnett), Homily (Amy Poehler), and their daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), are three such Borrowers, enjoying a comfortable but tenuous life beneath the floorboards of a quaint garden home. When Shawn (David Henrie), a sick young boy staying at the house, discovers Arrietty, life changes for her forever. The two tentatively befriend one another, Arrietty always torn between her trusting nature and her instincts of self-preservation. However, when Hara (Carol Burnett), the maid of the household, becomes suspicious of the floorboard’s, Arrietty and her family are forced to consider relocation or capture.
With Arrietty, first-time director Yonebayashi contributes a magnificent title to Ghibli’s growing pantheon of films featuring a young girl’s courageous coming of age. Penned by Miyazaki, the film shares a few notes of familiarity with Spirited Away, rather this time told from the reverse perspective of someone already living in the “fantastical world.” Arrietty is inversely confronted with the “normal world” of Beans (Borrowers’ word for Humans). The majesty of Arrietty is the fact that the “fantastical” is culled from the normal, not contrasted with it. Her world is the same world of Beans, made spectacular simply by scale.
Arrietty is a formally beautiful film, generously so. Its grandiosity never feels exploitative because of how intelligently ingrained it is in the film’s overall themes. The craft and attention to details are sometimes staggering. For this reviewer it is all-the-more refreshing to see a “traditionally animated” film with a scope of these little details. Leaves, rain, textured surfaces, and light, are all thoughtfully and tactilely realized. Sound is used brilliantly as well, to draw a sensuous portrait of the world as experienced by new ears. Every creak of wood, clang of a pan, rustle of fabric, is crisp and convincing.
Yonebayashi presents three distinct attitudes through his Borrowers. Pod, the father, is a strict and industrious survivor who is short on words. Homily is the mother, a chronic worrier. And Arrietty is the willful, hopeful, and vibrant negotiation of her parents’ extremes. This story has resonance with the climate of the times, where many people in dire straits must feel like Borrowers; four inches tall, taking what they can and fashioning an existence, following the Borrower creed of “We take only what is needed. Nothing more.” Though the film is peppered with a few moments of unfortunately overt sentimentality, Yonebayashi preserves the ingenuity of the story and accesses a sense of pure moments and emotions with complexity and honesty.
The Secret World of Arrietty opens today in Philly-area theaters.