Discover The (Gorgeous) Secret World of Arrietty – A Review

Why are you interested in this adaptation?


The real question is why would I NOT be interested in this movie?

I love animated films.  And by animated I mean cartoons. Anime is one of the few remaining sources for old-school animation, and it’s also essentially the only place you find animation for adults that is therefore moving the techniques and aesthetics of the medium forward still.

I also enjoy anime as a genre, although I never really go out of my way to find it…but when it comes to me, I see it and enjoy.

To the final relevant point in this discussion, I enjoy fairy tale/folk tale type stories, especially new ones (either new to me or original stories in that vein), and the idea of a world of little people who live in a small corner of our world is right along the traditional folk lines.


Sure, I read the plethora of novels about small things when I was a kid (The Borrowers, Indian in the Cupboard, etc.) but I’m in this for Studio Ghibli. I pretty much love Every. Single. Thing. Ghibli has ever produced. (Except Tales from Earthsea, but we can talk about that later…)

They’re just sooo friggin beautiful! And there are lots of girl heroes! The stories are also much more varied than the Disney offerings of the last 15 years, and I really appreciate that. I didn’t discover Ghibli until college, but I was an instant convert.

If you’ve never heard of Studio Ghibli or its founder, Hayao Miyazaki, you probably remember Spirited Away winning an Oscar about 10 years ago, or you’ve seen the Ghibli character of Totoro making cameos in a few Pixar films. Suffice it to say, Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli are extremely influential, and to call him the Japanese Disney is at once accurate and entirely misleading.

And yes, my favorite is Nausicaa. People are never surprised by this.


I would like to point out another instance of my growing up under a rock: I had no idea what The Borrowers book series was until after I had seen this movie when I was recommending it to a friend and she was all, “Oh, I wonder if it was based on The Borrowers books?”

And for the record Howl’s Moving Castle is probably my personal favorite Ghibli film, but that’s probably just because it’s so abstract and weird, especially in the middle.


What would make it awesome?


I don’t really know what to expect. I’ve purposefully only seen the teaser trailer. I know it’s beautiful already, and I won’t be disappointed there. I also know it won’t follow The Borrowers‘ plot even though some of the names are the same. The teaser trailer doesn’t really let you know any plot details, so I can’t point to any specifics. I assume the Borrowers will be discovered, and there will be an escape of some kind.

I’m also looking forward to the soundtrack and even the sound editing, which in Ghibli films is always excellent. Judging from the teaser trailer and posters this is going to be a nature-heavy film (most of them are, but I’m thinking of My Neighbor Totoro especially), and I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of the extensive research Miyazaki and his team have obviously done.


I am going to take this question as, what would make it not just good but FUCKING GOOD.  To that end…if the animation is really creative and proves why this has to be a 2-d animation movie.  What I mean by this…there were scenes in some of the Cowboy Bebop episodes that literally could not be filmed in live action.  The angles and perspectives were just too extreme.  That is pushing animation as a film technique forward.  If this movie has that kind of A-game animation, and a really good and original story, then it will be off the chain.

At this point with the track record Rachel and I have had on watching movies together, I’ll settle for just a really good and slightly original story!


What would make it suck?


I don’t really think there’s a lot of feasible ways to make this film terrible.  Maybe if they just rewrote the story of the original and were working with either a spliced version of the visuals or trying to fit a new story onto the original animation.

But if they’re working with the original movie (which is highly acclaimed and would not be chosen for export if it were not solid), just dubbed in English, there’s nothing that will make this awful short of using Gilbert Gottfried and Fran Drescher as the voice talent.


Before I had seen Tales from Earthsea, I would have said with great confidence that no Studio Ghibli film could ever disappoint me, but Miyazaki’s son definitely did that with Earthsea. There’s some drama behind that film (it led to a feud between father and son because Hayao didn’t think his son Goro was ready to direct, and the film was based upon not just Ursula Le Guin’s novels but also Hayao’s manga. You can see how things got touchy). While Tales from Earthsea had the quality animation we’ve all come to expect from Studio Ghibli, it was a rambling, incoherent mess. It suffered from too much going on, the type of interrupted plot lines you get when you watch condensed film versions of really long anime series.

I hope the story is simple. That’s what Studio Ghibli excels at.


Thoughts on casting/production?


While Hayao Miyazaki’s name is attached to Arrietty, he is not directing it. He did write the screenplay and is involved in production, so I am confident that this won’t be another Tales from Earthsea.

I am disappointed in the fact that I’ll be watching a US-specific dubbing when I see it in the theater. In general, I find the Disney-lead American dubs to be more about using famous voices to get American parents to see a film with their children than picking good voice actors. In fact, they generally don’t even use professional voice actors at all, which is really disappointing! The US dub features Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett. A more inspired casting than, say…Christian Bale in Howl’s Moving Castle…but I’ll bet the UK version will be better. (Although…Christian Bale could technically be the UK dub of that one, except I don’t believe they did region specific dubbing on that film, just Japanese and English)


I…didn’t even bother to watch the trailer.  I read the synopsis and country of origin and knew I wanted to see it.  I actually don’t want to go into the film with any expectations—I think in this case a blank slate might be better for me—so, long story short, no, I have no additional thoughts about this production before I see it.


Reaction to film:



Legit. Look at this. LOOK AT IT.

The dubbing was fine; there really wasn’t all that much dialogue to begin with. I was having little artgasms examining all the scenes filled with random bits of stuff and trash that the Borrowers had converted into useful objects. Just looking in the corners of their home was worth the ungodly price of NYC admission. It really was.

I loved how ridiculously brave Arrietty was. It was a wonderful counter to the careful details that really made the audience FEEL how being that small must feel. Simple human movements became lumbering, clumsy and ominous. And yet when confronted by cats, insects, chasms and heart stopping realizations, Arrietty just stood and faced it. NO. FEAR. It was just amazing. The boy that the lonely Arrietty befriends, Shaun in the American dub (Sho in the Japanese version), was kind of horribly creepy. But I liked that. He wasn’t charming or really that endearing. He was almost zombie-like in the way he moved around the house and how he just sat, unmoving. He came across as a very sick and lonely boy with no one to talk to and not very much to say anyways. But his intentions were good, if misguided. But yea, that scene (that I now know is in the official Trailer because I watched it) when Arrietty and her father and taking tissue and she realizes Shaun is just STARING at her…that was terrifying!

I also liked the sad little ending. The two new friends must part, never to meet again, but you know that Arrietty will continue her adventures and you feel happy for her that she is going somewhere where she can make friends (and possibly boyfriend! I laughed when a friend of mine who was seeing it at the same time but in another state texted me “Spiller is totally husband material. He grunts, he flies, and he can steer a kettle down a river!”). I’m not sure what happens in the Japanese version as I haven’t gotten my hands on a subbed version yet, but in the American dub Shaun doesn’t die like I was CONVINCED he would. I know in the Borrower novels the boy is the one telling the stories, and you don’t really know if everything he writes about happened or if he is just making it all up. So I assume that Shaun surviving is a nod to those novels. I don’t know why I was so morbid about him. He seemed pretty lackluster as a character. Arrietty definitely stole the show. Hell, Spiller was more interesting than creepy Shaun.

Favorite Scene: When Arrietty is sitting in the crawl space and the roly-poly bug comes up and she uses it as a ball. I don’t know why but I was SO HAPPY when that happened.

Least favorite scene: The freaking CROW in the screen of the window! HOLY CRAP. I mean, hilarious, especially when Haru came in and solved the issue by beating it on the head with her shoe. That scene had me laughing, but I also felt like it was kind of intensely crazy? I dunno. It was like meditating in the glow of a warm and happy film full of quilts and cookie flour and then CROW IN YOUR FACE AND IT WON’T STOP SQUAWKING. Mostly it was jarring.

Ha…jarring. Poor Homily. Haru is a sadist. At least she poked holes in the plastic wrap? I had visions of poor Homily suffocating as soon as she shoved her in that mason jar. Tsk tsk!

Actually let’s take that back. My least favorite scene was the opening scene (even though it was awesome) when I had to listen to that ridiculous song about coming into a garden and the trees and she used to spend her childhood. WHAT. IS. THAT? WHAT IS THAT SONG? IT’S HORRIFIC. It inspired my boyfriend to rewrite the song with dirty lyrics, and he sang it all weekend. That song has to go. It’s even in the Japanese version with the English lyrics. GET IT OUT. IT’S AWFUL. Arrietty’s song at the end was fine, though. Just the coming into the garden song…ugh.

And the cat! We love the cat! I love that cats are looked upon fondly in Japanese culture. Too many Americans are all “I’m a dog person!” and…proud of that. For some reason.

Cats forever.

Except when they eat little people. They shouldn’t do that. Don’t let your cat eat any borrowers living in your house. It’s not nice.

Elena –

I have three words to anyone who loves art and is wondering if they should see this film (and for once none of them are f-bombs):  moving Impressionist garden.

That’s what this movie looked like to me in its animated art direction.  There were lots of colors, lots of shades of green, lots of details of leaf shapes, and yet…this was not photo-realism.  It wasn’t even pretending to try to be. It was just…blurry and lovely and rustling and alive.  It’s worth seeing if you love visual art just for that.

But…the movie on the whole is also pretty much fucking awesome (hey, there’s the drop you knew was coming!).  The heroine, Arrietty, is just awesome. She’s the kind of female hero character we need more of—unafraid of the world, curious, determined, and self-sufficient, yet also vulnerable and open and able of accepting help and seeing the good in others.  She’s like all the good parts of urban fantasy heroines blended with actually being a whole, healthy person instead of an embittered introvert.  I loved especially how willing she was to question the established rules of her life.  I know that’s what kids are supposed to do, but…I don’t think I questioned survival issues when I was 14.

Then there is the High Romantic angle of this being like…the most impossible of all impossible love stories.  She’s the size of one of his fingers.  Even if they were true soul mates they could never have more than companionship.  But they can’t even have that!  Because her parents live by the rule of “human sees us, we have to leave”—and evil housekeeper Haru proves them right to have that rule.  Oh, she’s awful!  (There may also have been a strong resemblance to someone I used to know in real life who caused me significant grief, so my reaction to her was perhaps…extreme.)  It was hilarious to see her foiled again and again and put herself in an even worse position than she’d been in before, when her employers just thought she lost things left and right.

Anyway, the burgeoning friendship between Shaun and Arrietty is sweet and bittersweet at once, since the closer they become the more certain it is that she will have to leave.  Not gonna lie, I teared up at the end.  It was so beautiful.  And how sad was it that the grandfather and Shaun’s mother had built that lovely dollhouse just for them, and they could never live in it?  I totally expected Shaun to relocate them into it and take them home with him, or give them to another house but within the dollhouse.

There were definitely echoes of it being a vaguely romantic interest, at least on Shaun’s part, because both he and Spiller give each other the stink eye, who is THAT asshole?, style.  Spiller was hilarious.  He was great comic relief, but subtle, and also a point of extreme depth for the film’s world-building because he showed that not only are there other Borrowers but that there are also very different ways of Borrowing.  Not all of them live in houses and scaled-down versions of human civilized life.

The movie felt longer than it was—not in a bad way, but it seemed more than 90 minutes.  Maybe because it unfolds at a pretty slow pace, and for all that you can guess several directions it might take you’re never sure which it will take, so you can’t guess how far you are in the plot by typical 3-act structure analysis.

One of the things I liked most is the feature this film shared with other Ghibli movies I’ve seen, and that is that it’s a callback to the fairy tales of childhood.  Not necessarily specific stories, but the infusion of a sense of wonder into quotidian, mundane life.  In an age where Disney has decided they are done with fairy tales (lame), I love that Studio Ghibli proves they can not only be retold but also invented fresh.  While this had great reminders of “Thumbelina” or “Tom Thumb” in terms of the relationship between full-size human and little person, and the scale of our world to them, the story and the scenario were totally different.  Again, not having read The Borrowers series, I can’t speak as to how close it was to those books, but it was fabulous for an impartial observer.

1 thought on “Discover The (Gorgeous) Secret World of Arrietty – A Review

  1. Sarah Sommer

    I have to agree, I love everything studio ghibli has created. My favorite is Totoro and Howls moving castle. Arrietty lived up to everything I thought it would.
    and yes. Cats for the win.


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