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We live in a world of endless cynicism and snark. As a society we constantly complain about how bad things are, and when good things come around we complain that they aren’t great things. Everything is about instant gratification and every issue becomes a war-worthy debate. Times like these require charming escapism, and The Secret World of Arrietty fills the bill with a wonderful protagonist, respect towards its younger viewers, and some truly stunning hand-drawn animation.
The titular Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a borrower, part of a race of four-inch tall people who live under the houses of humans. Her mother and father, Homily and Pod (Amy Poehler, Will Arnett), are the only other borrowers she knows, and as she reaches maturity she joins Pod for her first borrowing mission, heading into the main house to take some sugar and tissue paper. Their plans and lives are disrupted, however, when a young, sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie) discovers Arrietty and her family. But will he be like every other human and try to hurt and destroy and borrowers, or have the tiny people finally found an ally in the larger world?
What ultimately sells the movie is the character of Arrietty and the voice performance by Mendler. Despite the fact that the young borrower has no peers and has been forced to spend her entire life either indoors or running from a housecat, she has an effervescent energy that pops, but never feels phony. She views the entire world as an adventure and that dynamism translates perfectly to every member of the audience, be they nine or 99. In a world filled with pessimism, Arrietty’s exuberance is not only charming, but much-needed.
The Secret World of Arrietty plays as a beautiful fairy tale that doesn’t dwell in deeper meanings and metaphors, but is rather just a lovely piece of magical realism. But while some may see this lack of real depth as a negative, it does something that’s actually quite a bit more impressive: it treats even its youngest viewers as adults. As with all Studio Ghibli films, the target audience is small children, but their latest isn’t afraid of exposing them to some more adult themes. It’s not as though they are assaulting the children with images of sex and violence, but the movie does have a frank approach to potentially terminal illness at a young age, namely in the discussion of Shawn’s disease. While not a significant part of the story, it’s surprisingly refreshing and is done so that it could potentially open up discussions between parents and their children looking for a way to approach such a heavy subject.
Thanks to the regular doses of CGI animated films – which most certainly have their own splendor – it’s easy to forget the charm that comes with hand-drawn animation, and The Secret World of Arrietty is quite stunning. Because of the size of the main characters, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and the animators have the ability to make the ordinary look extraordinary just by using scale, and the results are magnificent. While we normally see the five-foot space between the kitchen counter and table as nothing, through Arrietty’s eyes it’s a valley as big as the Grand Canyon and Yonebayashi is able to give it that scope just through simple blocking and use of perspective.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a nice piece of kiddy fluff, but it’s a beautiful, well-told piece of kiddy fluff. It doesn’t shed light on any important issues and it won’t inspire activism from its viewers. But I challenge anyone that goes to see the film to walk out of the theater without a smile.