The earliest theater experience I can remember was seeing the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro back in 1993. I was around five years old, and I remember being completely enraptured by what was happening on the screen. There was a simple moment very early in the film that captured my attention, of the two little girls riding in the back of a moving truck, having discovered a small makeshift fort in which to hide. It was such a simple moment, a pure moment of childhood and imagination, and yet it was something you rarely ever see in children’s films from America. Looking back on the film years later, it’s amazing how well it has held up, and how it stands completely apart from today’s popular animated films; there are no pop culture references, no artificial plot developments, no wise-cracking animals voiced by celebrities picking up a paycheck. My Neighbor Totoro stands above all that, and remains an absolute classic in film animation and a personal favorite to this day.
And yet, for a number of years I never really felt the need to delve into Studio Ghibli’s catalogue any further, and I’m still struggling to figure out why that was. The closest explanation I have is that I developed a grudge towards Japanese animation due to the popularity of television programs like Pokémon and Dragonball Z, the appeal of both I never understood. Anyway, it wasn’t until the later half of the last decade when I finally got around to Spirited Away, and it was as if a floodgate had been opened. In the years since, I’ve seen most of the Studio Ghibli films, with particular focus paid to the masterworks of Hayao Miyazaki. Not every film has the charming minimalism of My Neighbor Totoro, but every film has something unique and wonderful to offer.
All this is my long-winded way of getting around to saying that there is a new Studio Ghibli film out in theaters, called The Secret World of Arrietty, and it’s the first Ghibli film I’ve seen on the big screen since way back in 1993. This newest release is based on Mary Norton’s classic children’s series The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards of a large house, “borrowing” food and other small items from the humans in order to survive. Throughout the course of the film, a friendship is established between the 14-year-old borrower Arrietty Clock (Bridgit Mendler) and the sick human boy Shawn (David Henrie). This sets off a chain of events that threaten the lives of Arrietty and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, remarkably restrained and almost unrecognizable).
I don’t want to spoil anything by revealing too much; suffice to say, the film is absolutely wonderful. Hayao Miyazaki takes a supporting role for this film, serving as both producer and writer, while leaving the directing duties to first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayaski, who is more than up to the task of following in the famous director’s footsteps. The Borrowers story has been told on the screen before, most notably in a 1997 film starring John Goodman. My memory of that film is hazy, although I seem to remember Goodman getting tied up and falling down a lot. Arrietty takes a calmer approach. In a way, it has a tone that closely mirrors Totoro: both films take place predominantly in a limited location, both films feature magical beings interacting with the ordinary, both films feature characters with illnesses, and both films emphasize the importance of family and facing difficult situations with courage. Arrietty is more plot-driven than Totoro, but both films have a general calmness that stands in stark contrast to the loud and overstuffed style that we usually see in animated films nowadays.
Also in stark contrast to modern spectacle is the look of the film. Like the classic Ghibli films before it, Arrietty is hand-drawn, a technique that has become so rare but still has its own overwhelming power. The film alternates between different styles: there can be tremendous detail, as when Arrietty and her father are moving around behind the walls, or there can be moments that have an almost painterly quality, as when Shawn lies in an open field under the sunlight. Any way you look at it, the film is beautiful to look at, and it should be seen on as big a screen as possible.
If I were to single out one thing that could have been executed better, it’s the actions of the film’s villain character. While not in any way evil, her motivations feel slightly artificial, there only for the purpose of providing some action in the film’s final act. But honestly, attempting to find significant flaws in a film like this is ridiculous and just ends up looking like nitpicking. This is a better animated offering than anything we got in 2011, and it’s currently the best film I’ve seen so far this year. While it may not reach the unbelievable heights of the best Studio Ghibli works, it’s another quality film to add to their nearly spotless record.