In 1997, Universal turned Mary Norton's timeless children's classic, The Borrowers into a mildly successful live action feature but it works much, much better in animated form—especially when the people behind it are the great Hayao Miyazaki and the Japanese Studio Ghibli. Norton's tale of an undetected community of tiny people is perfectly suited for a cartoon and this beautifully rendered, almost old-fashioned version is a gem. It's a wonderfully funny and richly rewarding movie for the whole family, which should mean decent boxoffice returns and a pretty clear run for those family dollars this month.
Studio Ghibli, responsible for the Oscar-winning 2002 Miyazaki film Spirited Away as well as the recent Ponyo, has invested the material with its customary care and styling. Although the original Japanese version was not personally directed by Miyazaki (he did the planning and screenplay), it carries every bit of the quality associated with this outfit and became the top-grossing picture in Japan for 2010. In the U.S., Disney is releasing the English language version directed by Gary Rydstrom and the translation seems effortless, including its sterling American voice cast.
The story opens with 14-year-old Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) who seemingly comes from a normal family with dedicated parents (real-life comedian couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). Only catch is they are little—make that tiny—people who live secretly under the floorboard of a country home where the clueless inhabitants have no idea why their food and other items are disappearing. Eventually, the grown human family's sickly son Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) discovers Arrietty as she is stealing a sugar cube and strikes up a friendly relationship. Problems begin in earnest when Shawn's elderly housekeeper Haru (voiced by Carol Burnett) begins to suspect things are going on and discovers the inhabitants for herself. The adventure continues as the family must escape and find their way to a new home-before Haru does them in.
More traditionally drawn and slower-paced than today's usual animated features, The Secret World of Arrietty belongs to another era and style of animated filmmaking. Miyazaki's influence is clearly evident throughout, but Rydstrom does not try to dumb down the material for the sake of trying to appeal to a larger American audience. Vocal work is exceptional, particularly Burnett who is a hoot as the housekeeper on the scent of the "borrowers." And though the film does have a strong message about the importance of living together in harmony despite our differences, it doesn't pound the lesson home but makes it effortlessly invisible-just like those little people it's about.
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Cast: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, David Henrie
Directors: Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Japanese version), Gary Rydstrom (English version)
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki (Japanese version), Karey Kirkpatrick (English version)
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Running Time: 95
Release Date: February 17, 2012