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The Secret World of Arrietty

A Japanese Anime film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (original Japanese release) and Gary Rydstrom (U.S. release)

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Borrower and the Bean

  • Feb 18, 2012
Star Rating:

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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February 19, 2012
Great write up. I just saw this and I agree with your review. Nice to see that we both saw simialr things and yet we saw some things differently. This was really good! Are you familiar with Miyazaki's other anime films? Almost all of them are that good.
February 19, 2012
I'm only familiar with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, neither of which I liked due to their difficult-to-follow story lines. The truth is, I'm not the biggest anime fan, mostly because I don't care for the way it looks. But that's just me.
February 18, 2012
Heard about this one a while ago; from a British contact, who says it came out early wherever he lives. He said it's very good; I'm inclined to trust him on that.
February 18, 2012
He's probably right. Keep in mind, though, that he saw a film with an alternate English dub. I obviously have not seen that version, but I have a feeling the British voice talents give the film a different feel. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
February 19, 2012
It is very good, Ryan! I really enjoyed this film.
More The Secret World of Arrietty reviews
review by . February 18, 2012
posted in ASIANatomy
Amazing, Enchanting, Mesmerizing Japanese Anime About A Very Little Girl and a Young Boy....
A few years ago, Disney bought the distribution rights to several of Studio Gibli’s creations. I was ecstatic since it would mean that Studio Gibli’s animated films would have better access to U.S. shores but at the same time, I was also hesitant since I was afraid that they would not include the original Japanese language track, and if they did, it would not be the default language in the dvd releases (no 5.1 Dolby usually). Well, seems like director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “The …
review by . April 18, 2013
posted in ASIANatomy
My love for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli know no bounds. With each film they manage to capture the magic, the art, and the heart that make films great. Even what I consider their weaker films, such as Ponyo or Kiki’s Delivery Service are good films and always leave me smiling and happy (well, with the exception of Tales From Earthsea). The Secret World of Arrrietty is no exception, and in many ways I believe serves as an example of one of their better films.  It’s not as grandiose …
review by . May 25, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
The Secret World of Arietty isn't exactly a new film.  Like many Studio Ghibli films it was released in Japan long before it was brought here to US Shores.  But also like so many of those films it is very heartwarming and takes it's audience pretty seriously.  It's an enchanting film.  It has a couple of strange things that keep it from being perfect, but it's definitely close to that.      The movie focuses on Arietty and her parents.  …
review by . February 17, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut hasn't the compelling novelty of Hayao Miyazaki's classics nor the dramatic rigor of Isao Takahata's contributions to the Studio Ghibli canon, but its reflective ambiance and technical merit warrants the venerated animation studio's imprimatur.      Though here transposed by Miyazaki's script to Japanese setting and idiom, admirers of Mary Norton's The Borrowers won't find a better adaptation in …
Quick Tip by . February 14, 2012
posted in ASIANatomy
Studio Gibli made this movie....'nuff said. Any anime fan knows how good they are.      Based on the story "The Borrowers"....I wish they were showing this in the original Japanese Language.      See Full Review Here.     
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


  • Opened February 17, 2012 | Runtime:1 hr. 35 min.
  • G
  • Arrietty (voice of Bridgit Mendler), a tiny, but tenacious 14-year-old, lives with her parents (voices of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) in the recesses of a suburban garden home, unbeknownst to the homeowner and her housekeeper (voice of Carol Burnett). Like all little people, Arrietty (AIR-ee-ett-ee) remains hidden from view, except during occasional covert ventures beyond the floorboards to “borrow” scrap supplies like sugar cubes from her human hosts. But when 12-year-old Shawn (voice of David Henrie), a human boy who comes to stay in the home, discovers his mysterious housemate one evening, a secret friendship blossoms. If discovered, their relationship could drive Arrietty’s family from the home and straight into danger.
  • Cast: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, David Henrie, Moisés Arias
  • Director: Gary Rydstrom
  • Genres: Action/Adventure, Animated,/Fantasy
  •  Poster art for "The Secret World of Arriety."
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    Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Fantasy
    Release Date: 2010.7.17 (Japan), 2010.9.9 (South Korea), 2010.11.30 (France), 2010.12.25 (Hong Kong), 2011.7.29 (UK), 2012.2.12 (Australia), 2012.2.17 (USA, Canada)
    MPAA Rating: G
    Screen Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
    Runtime: 94 minutes
    Studio: Studio Ghibli, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Mitsubishi Shoji, Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV), Toho Company, Walt Disney Company
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