Friday, February 17, 2012

A beautifully realized animated world

I'm not sure what motivated me to drag myself to a Saturday morning screening of The Secret World of Arrietty, another helping of anime from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli. Saturday morning? A kid's movie? Did I really need it?

I rationalized, telling myself that Japanese anime has a well-deserved reputation for high quality, that I already was awake and that I had finished with the Saturday New York Times. Besides, I was interested (really) in the cross-cultural possibilities of a Japanese movie inspired by The Borrowers, a 1952 children's novel by Mary Norton. Originally made in Japanese, the movie was later dubbed into English. It has both an American voice cast and a British voice cast, and is being distributed in the U.S. by Disney.

All of that seemed like enough of a cultural mashup to get me out of the house, and -- as it turns out -- The Secret World of Arrietty harbors some interesting cultural anomalies. Characters speak in English, but read Japanese books. The few cars we see in the movie have Japanese license plates. And the country house where most of the movie takes place has an alluring look that seems to blend both Japanese and western influences.

For me, the most rewarding aspect of The Secret of Arrietty centers on the beautifully realized world that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi creates, an appealing storybook environment in which tiny beings live in the basement of a house where an ailing young boy has gone to stay with his grandmother prior to a heart operation.

Arrietty -- the title character -- is one of these little people, and she and the boy -- Shawn, by name -- strike up a friendship that eventually topples barriers of mistrust between the little people and the potentially dangerous humans, referred to by the little folks as "beings." The tiny basement dwellers are called "borrowers'' because they survive by taking things they're sure won't be missed by the "beings."

The different sizes of the movie's characters gives Yonebayashi lots of opportunities to toy with scale. He and his team have been meticulous in depicting Arrietty's entry into the larger world of the house, a rite of passage guided by her caring but somewhat stoic father.

I don't know if the story's deliberate pacing will satisfy a generation of hyperactive kids who may crave more frenzied entertainment, but watching The Secret World of Arrietty can feel like turning the pages of a masterfully illustrated storybook, and the kids at the preview screening I attended seemed unusually attentive.

Most of the story, which flags a bit around the three-quarter mark, involves the slowly developing relationship between Arrietty (voice by Bridgit Mendler) and Shawn (David Henrie). Shawn's efforts at bridge-building are made more difficult by a meddlesome housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Henrie also provides a minimal but sometimes touching narration.

Of course, child-oriented lessons about the way two potentially alien worlds find common ground are passed along, but the craft display here is rich enough to sustain adult interest, even among adults who find themselves at the movies at a time when they're more accustomed to reaching for that second cup of coffee.

1 comment:

Jude said...

As soon as I saw ads for this film and heard the word Arrietty, I was depressed that they've made yet another version of The Borrowers, one of my favorite children's books. I don't know if I have the stamina to sit through another version, but it's encouraging that you gave it a favorable review.