‘The Secret World of Arriety’ and the Sad State of Animation

by Chris Barsanti

2 March 2012

This smart, winsome fairy tale is not quite Hiyao Miyazaki, but it still might be the best animated film that (some few) will see all year; of course, it’s almost always a weak slate to start with.
cover art

The Secret World of Arriety

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

(Walt Disney)

It’s a rule of thumb that prior to most films these days you’re certain to find yourself sitting through a good 15 minutes (if lucky) of previews, all of them chocked full of either thundering timpani drums and heart-skipping fadeouts or crash-bang slapstick and sub-preschool humor. There are times when it can almost be a reminder of why domestic movie attendance keeps plummeting; and that’s for the adult films. The dross that clutters the screen before a kids film is usually much worse.

Case in point is something spotted before a recent screening of The Secret World of Arriety: a preview for the upcoming adaptation of The Lorax. Pitched at a sugary, bouncy high and sticky with candy colors and quadruple-underlined dialogue, it would seem like a parody of itself had it not obviously required so much money to make. In a development that would be shocking had it not happened so often before, Dr. Seuss’s slim and nearly perfect environmental parable seems to have been simultaneously gutted and blown up into some Truman Show-like story about an all-plastic community where nature has been banished. Some kid breaks out of the compound, gets a crush on a girl, falls in with a grumpy little weirdo, and everywhere loom the cockeyed angles and ballooned herky-jerky machinery that made the filmmaker’s Despicable Me feel like such forced inventiveness. (The makers of the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas had it right: keep it to a half-hour, tops.)
The celebrity roll-call of voice talent is singularly numbing: Zac Efron as the boy! Taylor Swift as his love interest! Betty White! (Just because.) And Danny DeVito as the voice of the tree-hugging (yet still wisecracking, of course) Lorax himself, a development that requires the suspension of much of one’s sense of reason and all that is right to even begin to comprehend. Anything is possible, of course, but there is little reason to imagine that this grab-bag of actors voicing dialogue from some hackneyed attempt to turn a Dr. Seuss book into something less, you know, Seussian, will be anything less than vaporous. Also falling into the trying-too-hard category were the next sure-to-be-disappointing effort from the Aardman claymation team The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Madagascar 3, which at least seems to feature larger participation from the penguins.

Less egregious was the trailer for the next Pixar effort, Brave, an adventure set in the Scottish highlands of yore. The outlines of its story appeared perfectly serviceable – spunky warrior maiden called upon to save the day and prove that her gender has no impact on her ability to shoot a bow while riding a galloping horse – and more than one usually expects for Pixar, the visuals (a luscious cavalcade of rich, forest greens and flaming red hair) make this seem like it could be one to watch for. Of course, numerous people get banged on the head, fall down, and so on, to the point where you begin to doubt that Pixar’s normally spot-on scriptwork – which for so long combined highly sincere emotion with inspired visual comedy – is continuing the worrisome slippage spotted the last couple years with the uninspired Cars 2 and Toy Story 3.

After all this strain and hype, The Secret World of Arriety was a relief, like some cool breeze on a spring afternoon gloriously wasted at the park. An adaptation of Mary Horton’s The Borrowers, which the great Hiyao Miyazaki scripted but which was directed by one of his chief animators Hiromasa Yonebayashi, it follows the awakening of Arriety, a teenage girl whose family are all four-inch-tall beings completely similar to humans except for being only four inches tall. She and her mother and father live in a dollhouse-like contraption in the foundation of a large country estate, from which they will filch many of their necessary supplies (“borrow” as Arriety’s gruff father primly defines it).

Just as Arriety is being allowed out on the borrowing trips with her father, a sickly young boy named Shawn moves into the house and happens to spot her. Although the forbidden friendship that sparks between the two is theoretically the spine of the film’s story – it’s Borrower tradition that once they’ve been seen by humans they have to move to another habitat – Yonebayashi is more effective at laying out the particular structures of how Arriety’s family lives, invisible and off the margins. The long sequence in which she ventures into the house for the first time with her father, scaling countertops like they were mountains and lifting sugar cubes as though they were boulders, is a masterpiece of dramatic perspective and teased-out drama. The actual relationships between the rebellious Arriety and her parents and the sickly Shawn are drawn well enough but one-note after a time. With the lush landscapes and pindrop-perfect sound design (the rainstorms and buzzing of summer insects provide a greater sense of mood and setting than most soundtracks ever manage), this is about as close to a mood-piece as a children’s film will ever successfully get.

The Secret World of Arriety is certainly a kids’ film, presenting little of that strained effort so common these days where animators will pressured to include enough “adut” jokes to keep that part of the demographic satisfied in between handfuls of popcorn. It is hard to imagine any other way to explain the saccharine songs that clutter up the film during at least three important moments. But even with those imperfections that leave the film well below the heights of the best of Miyazaki himself (Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle, in particular), the presentation of fantasy in such a straightforward yet lyrical manner is cause enough for celebration. Particularly after one gets a view of that trailer for The Lorax.

The Secret World of Arriety


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