If you love animation, you owe it to yourself to check out the extraordinary productions of Studio Ghibli. Ask the folks at Disney and Pixar, and even they will tell you that the Japanese company behind such contemporary classics as “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Pom Poko,” “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro” are making cartoons that rank among the best ever made.
That high level of quality continues with “The Secret World of Arrietty,” a lovely adaptation of “The Borrowers” that accomplishes the nearly-impossible feat that almost all Ghibli movies pull off: It’s a movie that will simultaneously excite the imaginations of children while charming and delighting adults.
Visually, “Arrietty” pulls out all the stops, from its warm and compelling character animation to its stunning evocation of nature; whether it’s an expansive view of a sun-dappled meadow or a close-up of our diminutive heroine making her way across a lawn while hiding under a leaf, the Ghibli artists show us the world the way Matisse once painted it.
Not that the film sacrifices narrative for all this beauty, mind you. The screenplay, adapted from Mary Norton’s beloved novel “The Borrowers” (and its sequels) by master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, takes a familiar story and turns it into a lovely fable about family, friendship and interdependence.
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the U.S. dub) is one of a family of tiny people, known as “borrowers,” that live inside the walls of a country house. Her father, Pod (Will Arnett), goes exploring every night and brings home little things that that the “human beans” of the house will never miss but which are essential to the borrowers. Over the objections of her nervous mother Homily (Amy Poehler), Arrietty joins Pod for her first venture into the house.
Lacking Pod’s experience, Arrietty is quickly spotted by young Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly boy who has been sent to live with his aunt (Gracie Poletti) in anticipation of his impending heart surgery, because his parents are too busy with work to give him the attention he needs. Shawn learns that his mother and grandfather suspected that there might be little people in the house, and even built them an elaborate dollhouse complete with a working kitchen, but that neither of them ever got to see the borrowers.
Shawn tries to become friends with Arrietty, but the borrowers know that, once they have been spotted by humans, it’s time to move away. And that credo appears to be justified once housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) captures Homily in a jar and calls a pest-control company to find the other little ones.
Whether it’s humans, cats, or crows, “Arrietty” provides plenty of potential perils for its pint-sized protagonists, and the moments of danger nicely balance out the warmth and sweetness of the various familial relationships. We feel for the neglected Shawn and his need to find a friend, but it’s also apparent that the borrowers don’t have the luxury of trusting him, no matter how kind he is.
The U.S. cast is terrific — Mendler and Henrie are both products of the Disney Channel teen star factory, but their performances hit the sweet spot, neither too broad nor too bland. Burnett, as one might expect, mines Hara for comic gold, while the usually-hilarious Arnett discovers a hitherto undemonstrated gravitas in his gravelly voice.
(Here’s hoping Disney, the U.S. distributor of the Ghibli movies, eventually puts out a DVD with not only the original Japanese soundtrack but also the British dub, which features Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong and Olivia Colman.)
Among animation buffs, the release of a new Studio Ghibli movie is as much cause for celebration as a new Pixar title, but you don’t have to be a cartoon nerd to love these anime imports. If you’re already a Ghibli fan, “Arrietty” will meet your high expectations, and if it’s your first go-round, this movie will give you a taste at the great stuff you’ve been missing.