Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)

In US theaters 2012 (2010 in Japan), G, 94 min.
IMDB says... The Clock family are four-inch-tall people who live anonymously in another family's residence, borrowing simple items to make their home. Life changes for the Clocks when their daughter, Arrietty, is discovered.

The 73rd Virgin says... IMDB also shows two different sets of voice actors for US and UK distribution. Do you feel patronized yet?

Anyway, I haven’t read the book, The Borrowers, on which this is based. The movie is lovely work with a mid-tempo plot appropriate for all ages, but without the intense story line of a few of Hayao Miyazaki’s more grown up masterpieces.

At 71 years old, Miyazaki’s fingerprints are on this newest Studio Ghibli film for “planning and screenplay”, which is a bit of step back for the director who reportedly personally hand-drew one hundred thousand cells for Princess Mononoke. The opening credits show Hiromasa Yonebayashi as the director but the visual style is recognizable; from exquisitely detailed plant leaves and worn masonry, to the way an oblong flower rolls slightly when dropped, to how individual rain drops spread on an old smooth rock.

It is somewhat different in that it begins with a 12 year-old boy, Shawn, as the protagonist. But he looks just like all the 8 to 12 year-old girls who are usually Miyazaki’s focus, so it’s not much of a change.  He has a heart condition and is in the country in the care of his slightly batty great aunt (I think) to rest up for an operation. His parents are divorced; his mother is away on a business trip. Miyazaki is frequently described as a feminist, but this movie has an almost reactionary undertone observing the damage done by splintering, overworked families.

But the movie isn’t entirely about Shawn. It’s about the tiny Borrowers who live in a nice little apartment disguised as a pile of bricks in the house’s crawl space. And here is where we meet the typical Miyazaki nuclear family of Arrietty, her cheerful if flustered mother, Homily, and her stoic but lovingly gruff father, Pod.

At 14, Arrietty is ready to be escorted on her first borrowing trip where she and Pod will venture out into the house for a sugar cube and a few Kleenex. Along the way, she picks up an abandoned sewing pin and begins to carry it like a sword.  In any other movie the sword would be on hand later to be used as a weapon to fight off whatever monsters threaten her, such as the rats in the wall cavities that are presented in a bit of foreshadowing. But here it will have a different use.

On this first borrowing trip they are seen by Shawn. Arrietty drops the sugar cube and they have to beat a hasty retreat back to the crawl space. In the morning the cube and a little note have been left on a crawl space vent. This should be a charming sign of a new human friend, but the whole family knows that “the humans' curiosity cannot be stopped” about Borrowers once they have discovered them, and that this curiosity always leads to tragedy. They know they have to move.

Arrietty and Shawn eventually develop a stand-offish friendship. In an unguarded moment he says with almost offensive acuity that it must be sad for her to know that she might be the last of her kind. In truth, the family doesn’t know how many Borrowers are left in the world. But when Pod is injured while out exploring he is rescued by a suitably adolescent Borrower boy named Spiller – who wears animal skins and face paint and gifts the family a cricket leg to eat – and they make plans to relocate.

We learn that part of the reason for the great-aunt’s battiness is that as a little girl no one believed her when she talked about the little people that live in the walls. A minor complaint is that this leads to a slightly wobbly dramatic conflict where once she realizes that Shawn has had contact with the Borrowers, she becomes intent on capturing specimens for proof. But then she also hires Squeaky Clean Pest Control to do what? I’m not sure.

So this isn’t quite up to Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away standards but it is exciting without terrorizing little kids and entertaining enough for adults and adolescents.
My first experience with Miyazaki was the children’s masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro from 1988 – before John Lasseter of Pixar and Disney began to make such a fuss over him. Late in his career he was taken under Lassater’s fawning, gushing wing and is now a household name.

I’ve almost become blasé about the beauty of the Ghibli/Miyazaki movies. In total, my children and I must have watched various chapters of the entire canon 150 times. I’m not kidding. There is nothing to compare them to.

Those made for small children involved basically happy stories with only modest crises. And in almost all of them, both parents began the movie alive and stayed that way, too. How these came under the parenticidal Disney logo remains a mystery.

Those made for older children and adults featured fantasy stories, but with complicated flexible antagonists, conflicted heroines, and sometimes quite violent, epic, and doom-clouded storylines, coupled with endings that were still basically happy but left heroines in unresolved conditions, perched between childhood freedoms and adult burdens. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, have apocalyptically violent climaxes, and Castle in the Sky features a mushroom cloud. Disney productions never came close to these battlefields strewn with bodies of fantastical creatures. Happy endings aside, these were high drama mixed with visuals that still have no equal.

The Secret World of Arrietty sort of falls in between. It is in a beautiful pastoral setting like My Neighbor Totoro, and has no mushroom clouds or violent deaths, but there remains a subdued feel of displacement and abandonment – with a satisfying ending.

Full disclosure – the end credits show serial Oscar-winning sound man Gary Rydstrom as the director of the US version. He is my wife’s second cousin. I have 8mm of him playing in the yard with her when he was about 8. Someday, I am soooo going to cash in on that family connection.

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