'Arrietty': More Miyazaki Bliss
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Japan's Studio Ghibli makes animated films the way Faberge made ornamental eggs: with incredible painstaking handcraft and extravagant imagination. The most internationally famous pieces of the concern's never-computer-generated feature cartoon output have been directed by its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki: exhilarating, oft-surreal pictures like "Laputa: Castle in the Sky," "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away," movies that often mix period elements with fantastical sci-fi concepts and blend obscure mythology and mind-blowing action, wedding all these elements to scenarios with decidedly heart-tugging intentions.
Miyazaki, who has long been publicly contemplating retirement, did not direct this latest U.S.-redubbed offering, a story of an ailing young man who discovers a family of small people living under the floorboards of an old house where he's gone to rest up for an operation. If the story sounds familiar, there are a few reasons for that: The source material of "The Secret World of Arrietty" is the much-beloved children's fiction "The Borrowers," which was made into a lively live-action film starring, among others, John Goodman, back in 1997. "Arrietty," co-scripted and produced by Miyazaki but directed by longtime Ghibli animation artist Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is, despite several sequences of chase action (the movie's little people are initially very much disliked by a fat housecat) and suspense, considerably less raucous than any of the film's that made Miyazaki's name here.
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The poignancy of the ill "big" character, Sean (he has a heart complaint, of course), and his curiosity about Arrietty, the young girl in the three-person family of little "borrowers" who forms an at first tentative relationship with the boy, hints, of course, at the theme of a love that cannot be, and the movie's visuals and mostly very relaxed scene pacings, along with the pastoral settings, inflect the whole proceeding with a sorrow for things both lost and never there. Yes, there's real technical wonder in the way the Ghibli artists show how the tiny borrowers make use of the nooks and crannies we larger creatures take for granted in our domiciles, and the contrast of scales is always intriguing, but the fantasy elements of the film often take a distinctive backseat to a very sad and very adult mood. In this respect, the Ghibli film that "Arrietty" most resembles is the rarely-seen-in-America "Only Yesterday," an almost elegiac "what might have been" piece with zero fantasy element.
Which isn't to say that "Arrietty" is entirely low-key. It is still an animated film, after all, and the aforementioned chase and suspense scenes work like a charm (Ghibli's never really produced a bad one yet!), and its every frame is beautiful to behold. And the American voice cast, featuring Amy Poehler and the always-welcome-in-movies Carol Burnett (here giving voice to a variation, in a sense, of her legendary -- and silent! -- charwoman character) brings exemplary commitment to the proceedings.
It's always great to see an animated film that's pitched at kids but doesn't pander to them. As is always the case with films from this studio, there isn't a Smash Mouth song within 100 miles of these proceedings. And its modulations are a welcome break from the freneticism usually associated with such fare. While it doesn't offer much in the way of "sophisticated" content for adults, it brings something much more valuable, really: genuine aesthetic bliss.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.