Perhaps I’m just artistically deficient, but I find the look of anime unappealing. It’s not the backgrounds so much as the characters, especially their faces, many of which are drawn according to a fixed iconography that essentially cuts corners in the ways of expression. You see this with their mouths, which may adequately put forth smiles or frowns but consistently fail to suggest the illusion of vowel sounds, which are more complex and therefore more lifelike. They tend to just open and close, like the limited flapping movements of a puppet. The eyes are the biggest culprits; because they’re so big, they convey emotions at an exaggerated level. I’ve also noticed that, during still shots, the irises tend to shake rapidly, as if the characters are always on the verge of tears.
Having said all that, I find myself in the position of reviewing the latest Studio Ghibli animated film The Secret World of Arrietty, which has been distributed by Walt Disney Pictures for its American release. The look of the film didn’t impress me all that much, although I found myself caught up in the story, which is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers. I also realized that the lackluster visuals are enlivened by the English-language screenplay, translated by Karey Kirkpatrick from Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa’s original Japanese version, and the voice work, which, for me at least, grounded the story in such a way that I could understand it. This is more than I can say for films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, both of which relied on maddeningly impenetrable narratives.
For its U.K. release in July of 2011, the filmmakers relied upon such notable voice talents as Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Mark Strong, Phyllida Law, and Geraldine McEwan for the English-language dub. Under the direction of Gary Rydstrom, the American release utilizes an entirely new voice cast. I have not seen the British version – or the original Japanese version, for that matter – so I honestly can’t say which cast was best suited for the material. I can only go by what has been made available to me, and on that basis, the American cast did a perfectly adequate job. But to be perfectly honest, it’s hard to imagine a miscast voice-over role. When build, expression, and physicality aren’t thrown into the mix, the actor can better focus on his or her vocal range. I cannot think of any animated film in which the vocal performances didn’t rise to the occasion.
The central characters are Borrowers, a race of tiny humanoid creatures that are so named because of their “borrowing” everyday human items. They’re not thieves per se; they merely take small amounts of things ordinary-sized people wouldn’t miss, like sugar cubes, tissue paper, pins, and herbs. It’s not about collecting, but survival. They live by a very strict code, namely to never be seen by a human being – or a “bean,” according to Borrower mispronunciation. If they are seen, they must move to a new home, which isn’t easy when you’re only inches tall. We meet a family of Borrowers living under the floorboards of an old house in the Japanese countryside. The daughter, Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), is an adventurous teenager anxious to go on her first borrowing mission. The father, Pod (voiced by Will Arnett), is a serious but devoted man who understands only that he and his family may be the last of their kind, which is why “beans” aren’t to be trusted. The mother, Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler), is a high-strung worrywart who has a tendency to overreact.
Into their lives enters a twelve-year-old “bean” named Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), who has been sent to live with his aunt in preparation for a necessary heart operation. He notices Arrietty quite by accident, and finds that he isn’t afraid. If anything, he wants to become her friend. Arrietty is torn; she’s well aware of the code of conduct her people live by, and yet Shawn treats her with nothing but kindness. Her world will soon be turned upside down by Shawn’s housemaid, Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett), who not only imprisons Homily in a glass jar but is also determined to prove that Borrowers are real. According to Shawn’s aunt Jessica (voiced by Gracle Poletti), rumors of their existence have circulated in the house for years. Years ago, her father constructed a dollhouse so finely detailed that even the tiny kitchen utensils and appliances would work. This would include the oven.
Hara is not a villain in the traditional fairy tale sense, although her actions are definitely excessive and unjustified. One could say something similar about the rescue sequence, which, while certainly tense, is not the rousing adventure that would be typical of western animated films. I’m not being critical or congratulatory; I’m merely making an observation about two very different approaches to family friendly animation. Although The Secret World of Arrietty utilizes a visual style I personally don’t care much for, it has good characters, it tells a charming story, and it successfully conveys themes of friendship and bravery. The final scene is especially touching, perhaps because it’s happy without resorting to overused clichés. Not all cartoons have to be about princes and princesses living happily ever after.
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Walt Disney Pictures