The animation teams of Walt Disney Pictures and Studio Ghibli joined forces once again to create The Secret World of Arrietty, a fantasy film that opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 17. However, unlike previous, well-received Studio Ghibli films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, famous Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki did not return to direct Arrietty, but rather chose to simply work out the screenplay. Taking his place is fellow Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who provides the animation with a slower pace and a more two-dimensional feel. However, these qualities have not done the film any favors.
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The Secret World of Arrietty centers around a family of “borrowers,” ten-centimeter-high human-like beings who live under the floorboards of a small house in the country. Arrietty, the title character, her mother, and her father survive by venturing up into the human world for food and supplies, with the rule of never being seen. The story begins when a human boy comes to live at the house and subsequently discovers the existence of Arrietty and her family, forcing them to decide whether to leave and find a new home, or stay and risk their own extermination. As the events progress, Arrietty’s character develops as she slowly begins to form her own perspective of the world outside her own. Voice talents include that of Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and Carol Burnett.
One thing that can be said about Arrietty is that its animation is top-notch. Radiant landscapes are brought to life from never-before-seen perspectives, giving the audience the sense that they are witnessing more a work of art than just an animated movie. However, therein may lie the problem.
The Secret World of Arrietty simply does not have any strong characters or storylines that come close to matching its artistic depth. The pace is unbearably slow at points, and due to the fact that Arrietty was originally created for a Japanese audience, the characters’ mouths fall subject to the “Godzilla Effect,” failing almost comically to match up with their English dubs. In addition, the animation itself, although visually breathtaking in its still-life depictions, is disappointingly flat and lifeless when used in shots of moving characters.
As for the story itself, Arrietty may be a bit too straightforward for the above-13 demographic, but will no doubt delight younger children with its bold heroine and slightly goofy characters. The ultimate message of the film, that “no friendship is too small,” should be clearly apparent to all ages, but again may be a bit too simplistic for the average moviegoer.
The Secret World of Arrietty hits the bullseye when looking for an artistically satisfying picture with a pace reminiscent of Playhouse Disney. It is in no way a mediocre film, but is definitely aimed at younger children before all else. And while it may not have the advantage of such truly fantastical characters and settings as seen in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the film is still a prime example of stunning hand-drawn animation, which could be seen as an accomplishment unto itself in today’s world of computer animation.