Studio Ghibli fans should already be sufficiently amped over Disney’s pending theatrical release of The Secret World of Arrietty, Ghibli’s first major release since 2008’s Ponyo. Adapted by Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki from the popular British children’s book The Borrowers, Arrietty combines the bold, mature qualities of prior Ghibli fantasy outings like Spirited Away and Nausicaa with the droll humor of My Neighbor Totoro, resulting in a movie that is simultaneously thrilling and whimsically adorable.
Arrietty and her family are Borrowers, a race of mini-humanoid scavengers, approximately three-to-five inches tall, who subsist by “borrowing” food, soap, string, and other sundry items from humans. Out of necessity, Borrowers live in secret – if humans find out they exist, the Borrowers could be captured or killed. Arrietty has lived in the same dwelling with her parents her whole life, in a hollowed-out space underneath a storage closet, but their security is threatened when a new human, Shawn, takes up residence in the closet’s adjacent bedroom and witnesses Arrietty and her father in the midst of a late-night borrowing excursion. With their secret dangerously exposed, Arrietty must weigh the needs of her family against her own inquisitive desire to approach and befriend Shawn.
One of Ghibli’s greatest strengths has always been their ability to create films that genuinely appeal to all ages, from tiny preschool children to adults. Specific entries in their ouvre have catered to specific demographics (Ponyo, for example, was hyped as a movie for the kindergarten set, while films like Nausicaa and Grave of the Fireflies incorporate complex stories and political themes that some kids may find hard to digest). Generally speaking, though, Ghibli cartoons include something for everybody – a strong story, beautiful animation, fuzzy animals, and some nicely understated themes about responsibility, friendship, and/or family relationships.
Arrietty achieves a nice synthesis of all those things, and though it remains accessible and fun, it also brings a level of sophistication to the storytelling that’s atypical of most children’s movies produced in the U.S. Arrietty is fundamentally about culture clash, and by transplanting the story from Britain to Japan, Ghibli adds extra layers to a basically familiar trope, tapping into themes about modernism and traditionalism that have persisted in Japan for decades. This kind of attention to detail is what really sets the studio apart from similar production houses, and it’s incorporated as much for goofy and self-referential reasons as for serious ones – Arrietty’s game of ball-toss with a rolled up sow bug recalls the baby Ohm from Nausicaa, and it’s hard to watch that huge, pudgy housecat yawning into the camera without thinking of Mei and Totoro.
It might not be the single greatest entry of all time in the Ghibli canon, but Secret World of Arrietty is still a highly enjoyable movie, and a strong encapsulation of what makes the studio so great. It’s also nice to see Ghibli returning to its roots a bit and indulging in a gentler, more subdued narrative, although future outbursts of surrealistic insanity will be equally well appreciated.