I love Studio Ghibli, just to be clear. Each film they produce is filled with such visual richness and painstaking attention to detail that the characters and stories come alive in a way that other contemporary animators cannot seem to rival. In fact, I have yet to see a Studio Ghibli film that I did not truly enjoy. Despite all this, I always feel like I’m watching two films when I view a Ghibli production: one that is visual, and one that is narrative. Aside from Princess Mononoke, which has a surprisingly powerful and coherent plot line, most of the Ghibli films I’ve seen seem to meander from their inception to their end. While the films may have a definitive point A and B, the line in-between the two is often twisted and muddled. As a result, the films’ destinations often feel completely outlandish or painfully uneventful.
Unfortunately, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to fall onto the side of the “uneventful”. The premise of the film has a lot of potential, having been based on the novel The Borrowers, where the film’s title character, Arrietty, makes her debut. Arrietty belongs to a family of “Borrowers,” a race of tiny people who live in the shadows of their human counterparts, borrowing tiny and forgotten tidbits from the lives of their hosts. The world of the Borrowers is turned upside down after Arrietty is discovered by a human boy. Sho is a cooped-up infirm whose shyness gives way to courage and friendship towards the tiny Arrietty. While Sho has good intentions, everything seems to go haywire in their lives when their friendship begins. Other human beings do not appreciate the Borrowers, and in fact, will go to any extreme to make sure they are put in their place or exterminated altogether. Ultimately, the entire Borrower family decides to uproot themselves and move somewhere else to protect their family and the legacy of their race.
Studio Ghibli always has found a way to tell magical stories, and draw your attention to the most mundane things: two crickets playing with a crumb Arrietty drops, the rain falling off a leaf, or even just absorbing the environments created by the artists. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to view a screening of one of Ghibli’s infamous shorts, you’ll understand how they can take the mundane, a water spider, or a walk through the forest, and turn it into something unforgettable.
Fro me, the problems arise when simplicity is met with uneventfulness. Plot unfolds without rhyme or reason, characters’ motivations are never explained (nor can they be determined), and overall, the results of their actions seem to have no consequences.
The first fifteen minutes of The Secret World of Arrietty are engrossing. The viewer is allowed a peak into the secret lives of the Borrowers and follow Arrietty and her father as he takes her out for her first borrowing. The details are gorgeous, and take you into tiny crawlspaces only imaginable to full-sized humans. But, following the thrill of the first borrow, the film falls somewhat flat. Arrietty’s parent’s overreact to her possibly being seen by a human. In fact, the mother over reacts to nearly everything in the film, to the point where there’s really nothing likeable about her character. A fat toad-like housemaid has an inexplicable disdain for tiny people, going so far as trying to get them caught alive by pest control. I’m not sure why the maid wants to keep the borrowers alive, but on the same note, I’m not entirely sure why she wants to get rid of them either. Then, right around the end of the film, Arrietty and Sho are somehow in love, and then she leaves.
As an aside, I have to say almost all the love themes in Miyazaki movies seem thrown into the story, more often than not, in an unsettling way. For example, the characters in Ponyo (an 8 year-old boy and a youngish magical humanoid creature,) are forced to confess their eternal love for each other by Ponyo’s wizard and mermaid parents, and then Ponyo loses all her magical powers. Forever. In Howl’s Moving Castle, during a scene where Howl transforms into a bird demon and is bleeding or oozing something, Sophie, the protagonist, is told that only love can heal him, even though love had not been a part of the movie before that moment. Pretty much the same thing happens in Spirited Away, but instead of a bird demon, one of the characters, Haku, turns into a dragon and is only cured by the love of another underage siren, Sen.
However, to be fair, I will admit that these are all children’s films, and in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle and The Secret World of Arrietty, based on children’s books. The “love” which I find unnerving could merely be platonic love felt by a child, and the meandering plot points I complain about could simply be the cultural and stylistic divide between my western brain and Japanese literary and cinematic expectations. In fact, most of these films play out like Japanese myths, which, instead of having direct “fairytale” morals, are merely glimpses into moments in life. What you glean from them is entirely up to you.
In the end I recommend The Secret World of Arrietty. It is a fun, beautiful film, that I wish had a stronger story.