From Japanese arbiters of the whimsical and fantastic Studio Ghibli, animated fairy tale The Secret World of Arrietty is now available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack courtesy of American distributor Disney. Based on the popular British children’s classic The Borrowers, with an adapted screenplay by legendary Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki, Arrietty is a less free-flowingly surreal entry for Ghibli than previous popular releases like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but although its storytelling is comparatively restrained, its milieu is still richly permeated by Ghibli’s signature charm and attention to visual detail.
Living in a hidden cubbyhole underneath the floorboards of a small rural country house occupied by humans, thirteen-year-old Arrietty and her parents are among the last of an ancient race known as “borrowers” – small humanlike beings who subsist by scavenging petty articles like soap and sugar from oblivious humans. Having existed in cheerful obscurity for generations, Arrietty’s family find themselves suddenly threatened by the arrival of a new, adolescent member of the house’s occupying human family, Shawn.
When Arrietty and her father are accidentally seen by Shawn during Arrietty’s very first midnight borrowing adventure, the safety of her entire family is threatened, and Arrietty is forced to navigate some difficult choices about the value of trust and the nature of real exploration and adventure as her family plans to hastily relocate, and Shawn, meanwhile, tries adamantly to overcome Arrietty’s fears and befriend her.
The storytelling style of Arrietty is more subdued and traditional than typical Ghibli fare like Spirited Away, with its grand, enfolding, and unexpected surrealistic flourishes filling every corner of the screen and seamlessly guiding the free-associative flow of the narrative. This makes Arrietty a somewhat blander installment than most for Ghibli, but still more energetic and engaging than average. Ghibli’s breathtaking attention to visual detail is evident in every frame, and though its themes are less bombastically and unapologetically expressed than in Ghibli films like Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaa, the dichotomy between the allegedly civilized world of humans and the pseudo-nomadic naturalism of the borrower clans evokes the same cultural and environmentalist spectres that have been the studio’s narrative hallmark for decades.
Compared to previous Disney releases for Ghibli films, the Arrietty Blu-ray is actually somewhat disappointing, although it does contain a fully mapped-out storyboard sketch for the entire film that can be played straight through with a dubbed soundtrack. The only other features of note are obnoxiously cloying music videos for two featured songs from the American release version, including Bridget Mendler’s grating and stupid Radio Disney aspirant “Summertime.” There’s also an obscenely thorough reel of trailers and TV promos, mainly from Japan, but the disc is utterly void of commentary or behind-the-scenes material of any variety. Arrietty is not Ghibli’s strongest film, nor is it Disney’s most elaborate Blu-ray issue from the studio, but lukewarm Miyazaki still trumps most above-average domestic feature animation so it’s difficult not to recommend in spite of its minor shortcomings.