Published Feb 16, 2012A 2010 hit in Japan, The Secret World of Arrietty arrives in North America with a fresh dub, a slew of awards and plenty of Disney marketing dollars. Created by the renowned Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, etc.) from the first in Mary Norton's beloved series of Borrowers novels, it has an impressive pedigree. Nevertheless, the results are pretty and pleasant yet ultimately underwhelming.
The plot follows tiny ― about a foot tall ― subsistence thieves (aka "Borrowers") the Clock family: adventurous teenager Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), stoic father (Will Arnett) and worrisome mother (Amy Poehler). Living happily beneath suburban floorboards, they embark upon nightly sojourns to scavenge for survival items (i.e., sugarcubes and other pintsized food).
Matters are complicated when Arrietty befriends visiting human boy Shawn (David Henrie), violating a basic Borrower rule and attracting the attention of a meddlesome housekeeper (a frantic Carol Burnett). Mason jar captivity and fumigation-related complications arise.
Unfortunately, the tension, even at its thickest, kowtows to sweetness, largely avoiding conflict. For his part, first-time director and long-time animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi dresses up a staid script with attractive mise-en-scène, creating a fully realized world full of galloping grasshoppers, menacing toads and postage stamp artwork. Still, the clever scenery lacks the spectacle of past Ghibli efforts and can't compensate for the flat story arc.
Thematically, the film considers family and friendship, though headier topics percolate beneath the surface, especially the finite nature of time ― clocks tick throughout, gaining importance when paired with Shawn's potentially fatal heart condition. Unfortunately, like the storyline, this too is underserviced.
Likewise, the solid cast has little to work with. Poehler's comedic flair is reduced to sporadic shrieking and Arnett is entirely wasted in a brooding role. Thus, the duo's typically hilarious rapport (see Arrested Development, Blades of Glory, etc.) is never utilized.
Restrained to a fault, Arrietty is wholly unlike standard North American kids' cinema, which is refreshing, if not particularly compelling. Those grasshoppers are great though. (Disney/Buena Vista)