Movie Review – The Secret World of Arrietty

The last time I wrote a review, I covered one of my favorite games. I thought about what I should do next, and I realized that it’s been a good while since my last film review, so why not cover a favorite of mine from a different form of media? I’m fairly sure this one was my first exposure to the works of Studio Ghiblit. Today, I’d like to talk about The Secret World of Arrietty.

This story is set in a rural household, under which a small family of Borrowers has settled down, ‘borrowing’ goods from the human residents in order to survive. Arrietty, the youngest, is preparing for her first borrowing expedition when a new person moves in: Sho (/Shawn, in the Disney dub), a frail boy, who needs peace and quiet while he’s awaiting heart surgery. The two happen to meet and form an odd friendship, but contact with humans is a major taboo for Borrowers, and they have this unspoken rule for a reason…

This film was inspired by The Borrowers, a 1952 children’s novel written by Mary Norton. In 2010, Studio Ghibli would borrow the premise to produce The Secret World of Arrietty, or Arrietty The Borrower as it was known at the time in Japan. Two years later, the Walt Disney Company translated it into English and brought it to America, giving it the longer name as well as making a few other modifications.

It’s also worth noting that this film marked several firsts in casting. For director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, this was his first major film. Arrietty’s Japanese actress, Mirai Shida, was cast in a voice-acting role for the first time. In the independently-produced 2011 British dub, Sho was voiced by Tom Holland (yep, the Spider-Man actor), which was his first appearance in the film industry. In addition, this was the first time Studio Ghibli brought on a non-Japanese musician, Cécile Corbel, to help compose the soundtrack.

On that note, let’s talk about the audio. A key feature that really makes Arrietty work is the soundtrack. At no point is the music ever intrusive, and long stretches of time go without a single musical note. It never feels empty though, not with the general ambience and sprinkling of character dialogue. It strikes a careful balance between silence and sound. When the music does show up, it always beautifully compliments the atmosphere, building upon themes of exploration and melancholy. Even if you don’t understand the Japanese lyrics, you can still feel the emotions that went into Arrietty’s Song.

As expected of classic Studio Ghibli, their art is stunning. The 2D animation lends it a distinctive charm, and it still holds up reasonably well, even compared to the more modern standards of anime.

Just look at the level of detail put into Arrietty’s room.

The real star of the art show here, however, is the object and background design. I love it when ordinary objects are presented in novel ways on a smaller scale; things like nails sticking out from the home’s wood frame being presented as potential walkways, or the lost sewing pin becoming a rapier of sorts for Arrietty to wield. In the backyard, you can make out individual leaves on the vines on the roof, the raindrops on said leaves, and the liquids function correctly at the size scales of both the humans and the Borrowers. The home’s interior shows clear signs of wear-and-tear, yet it’s also evident that Haru (/Hara) has been properly doing her job as a maid.

Oh, and the characters. There’s not a single character in this film that doesn’t fill a narrative purpose, nobody’s around just to fill background space. This extends even to the animals, from the pet cat Niya to the pill bugs. Arrietty is a dynamic female protagonist, Sho’s weakness and quiet nature serves as an interesting contrast, and everyone has likable elements to their characters.

If you want to look even deeper, there’s a layer of subtext woven into the plot thread. It’s a commentary on human nature, more specifically regarding our innate curiosity. Both sides have key characters who symbolically represent different facets of this idea.

There’s no inherent evil, no clear bad guy. Haru believes the Borrowers to be thieves, and technically, she’s not wrong. They didn’t ask before taking things from the house, they didn’t ask for permission when they settled down under the home’s floorboards. However, they weren’t greedy; they only took what they needed to survive, and the things they did take were of little value to the original owners. Both views are rationally justifiable, but the way she confronts the issue puts multiple lives on both sides at risk, and is a perfect example of why the smaller folk are so distrusting of humans.

I love this film, though upon my recent re-watch, I couldn’t help but notice a few inconsistencies story-wise. Take, for instance, the scene in the climax where Arrietty unlocks a broken window from the inside. I like the teamwork between Sho and Arrietty, but why does she instinctively know how to unlock a human-sized window? She hasn’t been outside much, and they don’t have equivalent latches in their place.

Then again, it’s possible I’m overthinking things, and she’s just a quick learner. The Borrowers may not be human, but they have the same level of intelligence we do. It would be different if these inconsistencies opened up plot holes, but these observations were mostly just me being nitpicky anyway.

That about concludes what I wanted to say, so I’m going to wrap this up. Is this the greatest Studio Ghibli film? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s pretty high on the list for me, and it’s still the work I look upon most fondly. If you haven’t already watched The Secret World of Arrietty, I’d highly recommend it.

Rank IV: Quality Work