“It’s funny how you wake up every day and never really know if it will change your life forever.” As he arrives at his grandmother’s house at the beginning of The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti), young Shawn (voiced in this US translation by David Henrie) doesn’t know his life will be changed forever. But in looking back, in his narration, he’s good enough to make the point for the rest of us.
Shawn’s doubled understanding of his experience is premised on how he sees — how closely he pays attention and how he comprehends what’s in front of him. As his grandmother leaves him to sit for a moment and he ponders the wide lush lawn and gentle breezes beyond the car, he sighs, slightly. And then he begins to look more closely: he sees a cat, he sees grass rustling, and he sees Arrietty Clock (Brigit Mendler). Maybe.
It’s hard for Shawn to tell, exactly, because Arrietty is 13-year-old girl who’s just a couple of inches tall. She and her parents live under his grandmother’s house, their lives and their temperaments determined by forces much, much larger than they are. Arrietty is brave and bright, exactly the sort of strange and wonderful being who might change someone’s life forever.
Shawn’s life is in need of changing. He’s been sick, and what’s more, his parents are divorcing. At his grandmother’s place in the country, he’s supposed to rest and prepare himself for an upcoming heart surgery. But, like so many lonely, imaginative, and curious children in children’s stories — especially in the enchanting sorts of stories animated at Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli — Shawn won’t actually be resting right away. His adventure, based on Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers, begins in that moment when he spots Arrietty.
For a moment, Arrietty hopes she’s evaded his sight. And so that night, she accompanies her father Pod (Will Arnett) on her first official “borrowing” excursion, imagining that they’ll sneak through the giant “human beans”‘ house and gather (borrow) supplies, much as her father has been doing for years. With threads and hooks and doublestick tape on their shoes, they make their way inside walls and crawl through vents in order to gain access to the beans’ storehouse of goods, from sugar cubes and cookies facial tissues and a straight pin Arrietty repurposes as a sword (complete with swordy swishes on the soundtrack). Because they only take tiny bits or one piece of many, the borrowers’ activities remain undetected, even though, Shawn learns, some of his relatives (including his absent and much missed mother) have been guessing at their existence for years.
The movie goes on to split its perspectives between Shawn and Arrietty. Each is articulated in Studio Ghibli’s impressively detailed, hand-drawn animation, a style that allows for lively action and subtle facial and figure reactions as well. After Shawn first spots Arrietty on her first night out, he wants to make contact. At the same time, she’s instructed by her unflappable father and anxious mother Homily (Amy Poehler) never to interact with the beans, who are by constitution untrustworthy and by both accident and intention, dangerous to borrowers.
The film’s loudest demonstration of this threat comes in the form of the grandmother’s housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), who goes so far as to capture one of the borrowers and imprison her in a jar in the pantry. Shawn takes pretty much the opposite approach, determining instead to help Arrietty and her family escape Hara and any other bean who might want to possess or otherwise abuse them.
In part, Shawn’s sympathy is a function of his own isolation. When he suggests to Arrietty that he might die soon, she’s moved to comfort him as you’re moved to see the existential threat facing both bean and borrower. Arrietty and Shawn share a complicated friendship and collaboration, in which Shawn’s size is very helpful in some instances, and Arrietty’s in others.
And sometimes, their differences turn into parallels, as when the Clocks decide that their welcome at the grandmother’s house has worn out, and just at that moment, they discover that other (previously rumored) borrowers exist elsewhere. Their new friend is Spiller (Moises Arias), a dark-skinned kid with paint on his face and rudimentary “tribal” costume. While Homily is predictably alarmed by the boy’s seeming primitiveness, Arrietty is equally predictably intrigued, in particular by Spiller’s bow and arrow (which he lets her hold) and by his experience in the world beyond hers.
Indeed, Spiller’s minimalist language and advanced survival skills provide an effective counterpoint for the Clocks’ “middle class” habits and aspirations. If Spiller’s arrival has a whiff of magical otherness (he’s come to save the pale-complexioned protagonists), he’s also more complicated than that, and if he’s new to Arrietty, he’s also very familiar. Spiller’s experience remains unknown, his origins off-screen, but he’s pretty much immediately understood as “one of us,” that is, one of the borrowers, an understanding helped by the rather more extreme otherness of the beans. And so the movie can make the point that many sorts of individual contributions help make families and communities, and these contributors also come in assorted shapes and sizes.