From the soot sprites of “My Neighbor Totoro” to the tiny human-faced fish in “Ponyo,” the latest Hayao Miyazaki-penned animated export, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” combines his fascination with small magical creatures and strong female leads.
Based on Mary Norton’s children’s novel “The Borrowers,” the film follows the eponymous Arrietty, voiced in the U.S. by Bridgit Mendler, as she and her diminutive family live beneath the floorboards and hide from any creatures big enough to eat them. On her 14th birthday, Arrietty’s father Pod, a particularly gruff-sounding Will Arnett, takes Arriety on her first adventure inside the house where they borrow necessities from its human occupants. However, when a young boy with a heart condition named Shawn (David Henrie) spots Arrietty in his bedroom, the rediscovery of the Borrowers’ existence threatens to destroy the already-dwindling population.
First-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi fully capitalizes on the sense of scale of the human environment from the Borrowers’ perspective. Arrietty rappels down cabinets the size of mountains and fends off cricket attackers with a pushpin for a sword — all within the space of a human-sized kitchen. As an added bonus, “Totoro” fans will notice a feline that could pass for the lethargic sibling of Catbus. Also noteworthy is the way Yonebayashi and company shift subjective sounds between human and Borrower perspectives within the same scene, giving pedestrian noises such as human footsteps or falling rain an earth-rumbling effect, and then fading into the background once again depending on which character is listening.
Studio Ghibli films tend to paint themes in broad strokes and leave the nuance to its vibrant animated world. Meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the single drop of tea that fills a Borrower’s cup or the rolly-polly Arrietty uses for a beach ball. These moments lend the film its effortless charm. The computer-generated animation lends the film a slick, modern feel while the hand-drawn characters and watercolor backgrounds maintain an organic quality that contributes to the texture of the lush rural setting.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” draws parallels between Shawn’s illness and the endangered Borrower population. Through the burgeoning friendship between the young boy and Arrietty (and the fact that Arrietty’s last name in the novel is Clock), the audience realizes the characters in this story are borrowing more than various household goods: They are borrowing time.