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Secret World of Arrietty, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Insert Generic "Good Things/Small Packages" Quip Here"
4 stars

Although perhaps not as well-known in these parts except among critics and his loyal fan base, Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is a name whose reputation in animation circles accords him the same level of respect and adulation as the likes of Walt Disney, Chuck Jones and Pixar. Since making his feature directorial debut in 1979 with "The Castle of Cagliostro," he has created a body of work that has been celebrated throughout the world for his exquisite visual stylings and his ability to tell stories capable of enrapturing viewers of all ages with their combination of action, humor drama and a surprisingly complex emotional palette. "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle, "Ponyo"--these are not just among the best animated films of their time, they are among the best films of any type of their time and if you have yet to experience any of them, you owe it to yourself to seek them out and to do so as soon as possibly in order to see what you have been missing. "The Secret World of Arietty" is the latest production from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli home base and while he did not actually direct it himself--he produced and wrote the screenplay while leaving the directorial chores to longtime Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi--his influence can be felt over every frame and while it may not rank up there with the finest of his own personal efforts, it nevertheless stands head and shoulders above most other family-oriented films of late not named "Hugo."

As the film opens, a young and sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie) is sent off to the country to spend some time living with his aunt in his mother's childhood home in order to rest up before undergoing a heart operation. Only a few minutes after arriving, he thinks that he sees something rustling in the bushes and that something turns out to be Arietty (Brigid Mendler), a four-inch-high girl who lives within the walls of the house with her equally diminutive parents, Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler). The three are Borrowers, part of a group of like-sized people who live surreptitiously in homes and sneak out at night to "borrow" tiny items that their owners would hardly notice missing but which are invaluable to them--a bay leaf, a single sugar cube and the like. The most important rule of being a Borrower, however, is that they can have absolutely no contact with full-sized humans--if they even suspect that their presence has been detected, they need to make immediate plans to relocate lest they run the risk of being discovered and presumably destroyed. Nevertheless, Arietty and Shawn wind up making contact and becoming friends and when Shawn's housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett) stumbles upon the secret of the Borrowers, Arietty risks discovery and Shawn risks his life in order to help them escape the house before the arrival of the exterminators called in by Hara to uncover them once and for all.

"The Secret Life of Arietty" is based on the highly acclaimed 1952 children's fantasy novel by Mary Norton (whose works also inspired the Disney film "Bedknobs and Broomsticks") that went on to inspire four sequels, several television adaptations and a 1997 live-action film that threw out most of the basic story and transformed it into a "Home Alone" knockoff in which the little people banded together to fight off evil landlord John Goodman before he could destroy their building or some such nonsense. Happily, in adapting Norton's work, Miyazaki has resisted the urge to blow the material up in a similar manner--not that there is anything in his previous work that would suggest any interest in doing such a thing in the first place--and has instead managed to strike a nice balance between making it into something that fits in nicely with his oeuvre while staying true to the original material. Once again, he delights in depicting yet another intriguing new environment--albeit one that is essentially our world see from a different perspective--in ways that are dazzling to behold and wonderfully detailed without pushing too hard to thrill viewers with out-of-place action sequences that appear to have been inserted into the material solely to provide material for the videogame tie-in. At the same time, Miyazaki refuses to make the material too cartoony by using the story as a way of exploring notions of mortality in a manner that children will be able to grasp without coming across as too maudlin and as a result, this film could be used as a gateway for adults and children to begin discussing such a tricky subject.

"The Secret World of Arietty" is admittedly not quite as good as a full-out Miyazaki project in the way that most of the films written and produced by Luc Besson mirror his own directorial efforts without quite matching them. While I appreciate the fact that the film doesn't devolve into the kind of unnecessary action climax that is all but expected from most family-oriented films these days that aren't named "Winnie the Pooh," the story does admittedly lag a little bit in the last reel and is perhaps a bit too laid back for its own good. Another problem is that the vocal talents employed to dub the film into English (and before purists get into a twist over the notion of a dubbed movie, please bear in mind that all animated films are, by definition, dubbed) are not quite up to the usual high caliber of talent that are normally heard in Ghibli efforts--the kids are as bland and anonymous as can be while the more familiar comedic tones of Arnett, Poehler and Burnett, while perfectly adequate, are more than a little distracting here, especially considering the fact that only Burnett has a role that is really meant to be amusing. (By comparison, the version prepared for the U.K. featured Saorise Ronan as Arietty and Mark Strong and Olivia Colman as her parents--hopefully Disney will include that presumably more interesting track when the film hits Blu-ray.) And like Miyazaki's last film, the glorious "Ponyo," the Disney brain trust has tacked on an egregious bit of kiddie pop pap, sung by Brigid Mendler herself, that is presumably designed solely to air on Radio Disney as a form of subliminal advertising--a nice idea in theory that ends badly due to the fact that the tune is a.) bad and b.) sounds absolutely nothing like the gentle and lilting music that has been heard throughout the rest of the proceedings.

Those problems aside, "The Secret World of Arietty" is pretty much a delight throughout and if I had to choose, I would probably pick it over any of the current Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature. Considering that it is arriving in theaters in the dead of February with relatively little hype, some may be thinking that it is a dog that is getting a dump release from Disney but while the promotional wisdom of the studio may be questioned, the quality of the film itself cannot. For little kids, it will serve as a perfect introduction to the glories of traditional animation and storytelling on a level slightly more complex than the usual junk aimed at their age group. For older viewers, it will serve as a reminder of those very same glories and show that family films can engage them just as much as their younger charge. Sweet-natured, exciting, thoughtful and possessing both the most amusing animated cat to hit the big screen since Puss n Boots and produced in the bright and beautiful miracle of 2D, this one is a keeper.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22437&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/16/12 20:20:40
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User Comments

2/19/12 Flipsider Beautiful, compelling movie. Better than most films, animated or not! 5 stars
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  17-Feb-2012 (G)
  DVD: 22-May-2012


  DVD: 22-May-2012

Directed by
  Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Written by
  Hayao Miyazaki

  Bridgit Mendler
  Will Arnett
  Amy Poehler
  Carol Burnett

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