Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett
Written by: Keiko Niwa and Hayao Miyazaki, based on the novel by Mary Norton
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 94
Date: 07/17/2010

The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Little Treasures

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's all about the ladybugs. The animators at Japan's Studio Ghibli have been making children's movies since the 1980s and have earned the adoration of young and old, worldwide. They have done this not by making breakneck, slapstick movies full of fart jokes, but by focusing on the flow of life. These movies actually take the time, once a scene is over, to linger in the moment and watch a ladybug crawl across a leaf and take to the sky.

The studio's other trademarks -- richly detailed backdrops and sounds, strong, brave, young characters, and hugely imaginative storytelling -- are evident in classic works like Grave of theFireflies (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Spirited Away (2002).

Their latest is the beautiful, gentle The Secret World of Arrietty, directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The legendary Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced. The movie is based on Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers, which was previously adapted to the big screen in 1997 as a visual effects-ridden, live-action comedy. The Secret World of Arrietty couldn't be more different, or more refreshing, and it's even gentler than Miyazaki's last outing, Ponyo (2009).

Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a "borrower," a tiny person living with her mother and father (voiced by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) underneath the floorboards of a beautiful house in the countryside. Her father takes her up to the house for her first "borrowing," a sugar cube and a piece of tissue. Unfortunately one of the full-size human "beans" spots her. But this "bean" is different. He's Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), a sad, sickly boy that has come to stay with his aunt and her snooping housekeeper Hara (brilliantly voiced by Carol Burnett). Burnett is the movie's unexpected secret. She throws herself into the loony Hara and comes up with some big laughs, creating a memorable villain.

Shawn and Arrietty's blooming friendship is jeopardized by her father's mistrust of humans and Hara's zealous determination to catch the little people long rumored to be living in the house. The movie conjures many magical moments, ranging from a crow stuck in a window screen to a tubby, short-tailed cat forever stalking the little folks, and an awe-inspiring first glimpse of a beautiful dollhouse. Even the way water is poured -- in large drops -- in this tiny world shows the care and attention that went into the movie.

Indeed, the movie is so serene and patient that some American kids may find themselves squirming a bit like ladybugs. But most will be caught up in its beautiful spell, immersed in great storytelling at its finest.

Note: For some reason, an entirely different voice cast -- including Saoirse Ronan and Mark Strong -- was recorded for the UK version (see the trailer here), as if US viewers were completely unable to understand British. Hopefully viewers will get to see all the versions on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Update: In May of 2012, Disney released a two-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set. Sadly, though the disc does include French-language and Japanese-language tracks, it does not include the aforementioned UK track. Otherwise, quality is excellent, and that oversight should not prevent viewers from checking out this amazing movie. Extras include the Japanese storyboards, trailers, and music videos.

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