Sorry for writing such late reviews. I try to come up with an angle for these things that read something slightly less droll and banal than, “I liked it. It was much better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.” I was debating what grade to give The Secret World of Arrietty when I get bailed out from the most unlikely person of Lou Dobbs. There are plenty of things I can criticize about Studio Ghibli’s latest movie, but indoctrinating children on a Hollywood/President Obama agenda is not one of them. As one online commenter noted, “…Arietty (sic) is an adaptation of a fifty year old novel written by an English woman who died two decades ago, written by a 71 year old Japanese gentleman who’s expressed no public interest in the politics of his own country let alone Barak (sic) Obama’s ‘liberal agenda’.” Here I was, spending so much of my attention on the eye-popping visuals in the background, I completely missed that there was a social and political message being pushed down our throats. It does explain the name change from the original Mary Norton novel from 1952, and the 2010 Japanese film. It’s cute that someone who looks and like a Scooby-Doo villain acting like he is a member of Mystery Incorporated in announcing this revelation. I suppose I am in the minority of anime fans that is not a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I believe their signature style of storytelling puts them in a handicap. For example, the lack of a serious antagonist in almost all of their films. I understand that the challenge and struggle comes from within the protagonists’ hearts and minds, but it also makes for dull viewing experience. (Yes, they make up for that with absolutely stunning visuals most of the time, but I’ll get to that later). And while I also understand why a children’s film will have young children in the lead roles, Miyazaki in particular likes to have his heroines too young to be so wise, brave, and mature. The most egregious example is Ponyo. Not only do we have a couple of five-year-olds saving the world, but they also end up falling in love. I’ll suspend my disbelief for the former, but the latter strains credibility beyond the point of return. There is very little sense of danger, or even a coming-of-age process here. Arrietty herself is barely in harm’s way. And the only Borrower that was in danger, the mother, was in captivity for about ten minutes of the film’s 94 minute run time (it seems much shorter than that). If anyone has a character changing moment in this film, it is the human boy Sean, who is the narrator of this story. My final critique of Miyazaki films is that the only two characters that have any sense of development is the heroine, and the environment. Yes, the environment is a character is almost all of his films. Almost every other human character is either a prop, or a means to an end. At least he is not as bad as Mamoru Oshii, who absolutely refuses to believe in the concept of developing any character development whatsoever, but that is another post. But Arrietty is not directed by Miyazaki; it is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. And while the film has Miyazaki’s fingerprints all over it, since he is a co-writer and co-executive producer, Arriettyis not a typical “Miyazaki film.” Since this is the first time Yonebayashi directed, we can’t define what is exactly his style as of yet. But there is enough of a contrast to confidently say that he is not a derivative of Miyazaki.
Lest you think this is a straight pan, there are plenty of positives in Arrietty. The visuals are gorgeous as Studio Ghibli, once again, places a tremendous effort on paying attention to the smallest details. As I said, the environment and background are characters here. And with so much effort placed on those two, it almost justifies not spending time on the human and Borrower characters. There are only six main, two-legged characters in this film, and they all have a distinct personality that is charming in their own individual sense. Even the housekeeper Hara, who is the closest thing we have to an antagonist here, would be more like a protagonist if this was a classic Twilight Zone episode. I haven’t heard the original Japanese track, or the UK version, but the American dub holds its own. Carol Burnett steals the film as the aforementioned Hara. Will Arnett impressed me as Arrietty’s father, since the role seems to be outside of his typecast TV persona.
I have to admit that when it comes to children’s fare, Studio Ghibli is second to none. Yes I put them ahead of Pixar and Disney. In fact, while Disney’s English dub enhances the film for the American audience, Disney’s insertion of English songs (by Arrietty’s U.S. voice actress Bridgit Mendler) brings the film’s grade down a notch. The song, which could be considered to be good in its own right, has barely anything to do with the film, and starkly contrasts with the film’s overall mood and style. (At least it is better than the auto-tuned drek they inserted into Ponyo.) This movie can stand toe-to-toe with any animated film out there (ironic pun since the main characters are so tiny)… even those directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. It’s not perfect, but it is well worth the investment. So help out Lou Dobbs by either buying, and not borrowing a ticket, and/or the DVD/Blu-ray. My grade: B+.