Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty animates Mary Norton’s children’s story The Borrowers, a tale centred on a family of ‘little people’ secretly living in the floorboards of a house, who ‘borrow’ essentials from the ‘big people’ upstairs. In the film, Arrietty, a 14 year old borrower, is naturally curious and eager to explore a world which she has only heard about from her parents. Through her travels, she encounters a young boy named Sho who has recently moved into the house upstairs to relax ahead of an operation on his heart, and the instance of her being seen sets into motion a series of events involving anxieties as to her family’s safety. Gorgeously animated, the borrowers’ tiny dwelling made up of pins, screws, tape and threads is brought to life with breath-taking attention to detail. One of the first scenes where Arrietty gathers herbs and takes them to her room, decorated with a vibrant array of foliage, is rich in colour and visually stunning. The family cat, as always in Ghibli films, is animated with bewitching personality, communicating more meaning in a stare than is to be found in hours of dialogue. How the animators manage to lend emotion to the drawn lines of a cat’s eye is beyond me, but they are successful in their attempt. I cannot fault the form of the film, but unfortunately, I feel as though thematically it lacked a certain danger and darkness that is present in some of my favourite Studio Ghibli films.
This softness is perhaps down to the film’s loyalty to the original text. The book is, after all, a story for children, and so you could argue that the lightness of tone is an example of the Studio’s devotion to their base material. There is an undeniable sweetness and charm present, the relationship between Arrietty and Sho is pure and simple, and Haru’s wrong-doings are the result of over excitement rather than wickedness. Any suggestions of serious menace are nodded to and then forgotten, such as the rats with red eyes that scuttle around in the darkness. Safe and wholesome, this is a film that any parents would be happy to leave their child with, without having to worry about any obscurer undertones. At times I found myself willing the film to take me deeper into the risk-filled world of borrowing, deeper into the challenging nights and wild outdoors, but I think for it to do that it would have had to forfeit its focus on the growing friendship between two lonely children. Interestingly, one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films is My Neighbour Totoro, which I feel is similarly childish in tone, but is cleverer in its surrealism and possesses a more magical charm.
I really wanted to love this film, but I have to say that I left it feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed. However, an average Studio Ghibli film is still brilliant when compared to most of the rubbish that circulates nowadays. Three and a half stars is less of an attack on the film itself, and more of a comparison of it to other classics such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa, Laputa, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso. When set alongside these gems, I feel that it doesn’t quite hold up, but is still an incredibly enjoyable and thoughtful animation nonetheless.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2