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THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Voices: Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Moises Arias, Carol Burnett
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Audio: Japanese DTS 5.1, English DTS 5.1, French 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Japanese
Video: 1080p high-definition, 1.85:1 widescreen, color
Studio: Disney
Features: Original storyboards, music videos, trailers & TV spots, making-of featurette
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: May 22, 2012

Never be seen by humans. That is the rule of the little people.

Film *** ˝

How many countless times have we in our absent-mindedness misplaced an item or two in our very own homes? It would be simple to blame thieving gremlins for our forgetfulness, but what if the existence of such “gremlins” was close to the truth? What if there were indeed little creatures or even people living within the walls, borrowing items that they hoped would not be missed? The 1952 children’s novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton proposed this very idea - that little people do indeed dwell within the nooks and crannies of our houses.

The Borrowers followed the adventures of a family of little people, the Clocks, and their troublesome encounters with the Big People, or humans. Norton’s novel won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for excellence in children’s literature and spawned four sequels, the last one published in 1982. The novel also served as the basis for a number of live-action adaptations, most recently the 1997 John Goodman comedy of the same name.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) is the first animated film based on Norton’s stories. In this day and age of CG-animated films, The Secret World of Arrietty is a throwback to a simpler era of traditional cel animation. The film was produced by Hayao Miyazaki (Japan’s answer to Walt Disney) through his production company Studio Ghibli, which sets the gold standard today in the art of traditional animation. Among the many incomparable animated classics to Studio Ghibli’s credit are such films such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and My Neighbor Totoro, to name but a few. Hayao Miyazaki himself has been directly involved in the production of many of the Studio Ghibli films, and in the case of The Secret World of Arrietty, he contributed to the film’s planning and screenplay while handing the directorial reins to his successor, Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The Secret World of Arrietty is set in the pastoral countryside, far from the bustle of the big city. Idyllic country cottages dot the landscape, and in one such home lives a family of the little people. Thirteen year-old girl Arrietty and her father Pod and mother Homily have resided undetected for years under the floorboards of their country manor. As the film opens, the day has arrived for Arrietty’s first “borrowing” as she nears her next birthday, and Arrietty can hardly contain her excitement.

Arrietty’s special day also marks the arrival of a young human boy, Sho. He has come to the countryside to spend a week with his aunt. However, his purpose for visiting is not a happy one, as Sho is quite ill, suffering from a congenital heart condition that will require surgery soon. The Secret World of Arrietty tells of the friendship that develops between the young borrower Arrietty and the human boy Sho. Theirs will be a friendship fraught with peril, for borrowers have learned over the years how potentially dangerous any interaction with the “human beans” can be. In general, the “beans” are to be avoided, particularly children, who can be so unpredictable. Certainly, not all humans intend harm, but neither does the boot intend harm to an unsuspecting ant it has just unwittingly stepped upon. And so, the little people know that in order to survive, they must avoid detection; when detected, they must move and start afresh in a new home.

There are few humans in the story. Aside from the well-meaning Sho and his good-hearted aunt, there is also the aunt’s maid, a stout woman determined to catch one of the borrowers; she is not above calling upon outside exterminators to assist her, either. A hungry crow, a curious cat, and scurrying rats round out the cast of hazardous creatures.

There is an undercurrent of fear throughout the film, despite the fact that The Secret World of Arrietty is a children’s film. A sense of foreboding pervades the story, emphasizing just how much unknown danger exists almost around every corner for Arrietty’s family. The first quarter of the film is itself an extended chronicle of Arrietty’s initial foray into the home of the “beans” in search of food and sustenance. At this stage of the story, the film resembles more a suspense-thriller than a children’s film. Arrietty makes a grave error at one point that evening, and the repercussion of her mistake will resonate for the remainder of the film. As the boy Sho knowingly remarks later (in the original Japanese dialogue), “It's sad, but you're a doomed species, you know.”

Arrietty’s family is understandably afraid there are not more little people like them around. Are they the very last Borrowers in the world? And if so, then they cannot be blamed for harboring an almost ritualistic fear of discovery, and not without just cause, as the father Pod implies through his tales of Borrower relations gone missing after an encounter with a “bean.”

The Secret World of Arrietty is a bittersweet, melancholy viewing experience. Despite its numerous flashes of gaiety and humor, it is still a dark film. The Secret World of Arrietty presents a parable for racial persecution and inevitable exodus, sugar-coated in bright colors to make its message more palatable. And if the film ultimately lacks the sense of other-worldly spectacle and awe that has accompanied some of Studio Ghibli’s best efforts, that should not detract from the film’s strengths - its narrative warmth, strong story-telling, and sense of innocence (or perhaps innocence lost).

Video ****

The Secret World of Arrietty is presented in a 1080p high-definition, 1.85:1 widescreen format. This 2-disc release also offers a standard dvd as a second viewing option. Either viewing option is quite acceptable, particularly as a cel-animated film does not benefit as greatly from blu-ray technology as would a CG-animated film.

Audio ****

Audio options include an English DTS 5.1 HD track, a French 5.1 track, and the original Japanese 5.1 DTS track. Subtitles are available in French and English. Be forewarned that the two English subtitle tracks are very different - one matches the English dubbed version and the other follows the original, darker Japanese dialogue. The English dubbed version attempts to maintain an optimistic outlook, whereas the original Japanese dialogue touches upon the subject of death and extinction.

Features ** ˝

Disc One contains the blu-ray version of the film. It also offers sneak peeks for the Pixar films Brave and Planes, the blu-ray releases for Cinderella, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, and The Rescuers Down Under, a promotional ad for TV's Ally, and a sneak peek at the Tinkerbell film Secret of the Wings.

As a standard feature on Disney home releases of Studio Ghibli films, full-length original Japanese storyboards for the film are also included. Other promotional spots include two dozen trailers and TV spots (24) for The Secret World of Arrietty as well as a few advertisements from the insurance group MS & AD.

Lastly, there are two music videos - the Cécile Corbel music video “Arrietty’s song” and “Summertime” by Bridgit Mendler. A quick making-of featurette (2 min.) about the music video is available, too.

Disc Two contains the DVD version of The Secret World of Arrietty as well as the “Summertime” music video and its making-of featurette.

Summary:

The Secret World of Arrietty is a fine adaptation of the classic children’s story The Borrowers. Perhaps adults more than children will appreciate the film’s themes, but this excellent Studio Ghibli film can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.

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