The borrowers in Judge Clark Douglas' home seem to be fond of Blu-rays. They still haven't returned Goodfellas.
Do not be seen by humans.
"I have one in a jar!"
Facts of the Case
Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler, Good Luck Charlie) is a very tiny girl who lives in a very large house. She and her parents Pod (Will Arnett, Arrested Development) and Homily (Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation) are "borrowers"; tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of ordinary humans (or "Beans," as the borrowers call them). They survive by borrowing (well, stealing) little things that humans won't miss: lumps of sugar, tea leaves, sewing needles, etc. What a human might regard as an insignificant scrap can serve as a week's supply of food for a borrower.
Arrietty is thrilled to go on her first borrowing mission with her father, but things take an unexpected turn when Arrietty is spotted by a sickly young Bean named Shawn (David Henrie, Wizards of Waverly Place). Shawn is a good-hearted boy who is eager to learn more about these strange little people living in his house, but Pod and Homily are convinced that contact with the Beans can only lead to disaster. As Arrietty's parents make plans to leave, our heroine tentatively begins to develop a friendship with Shawn.
A new Studio Ghibli film is always a treat, so it was with great anticipation I paid a trip to the theatre to check out The Secret World of Arrietty. However, it didn't take me long to realize this was going to be rather different from most of the famed studio's efforts. Sure, head honcho Hayao Miyazaki had simply written the screenplay and handed directorial duties over to Hiromasa Yonebayashi (making his directorial debut after serving as a key animator on numerous Studio Ghibli films), but nothing could have prepared me for such a tame, sedate experience. Where was the imagination, energy and reckless abandon? I found the film a tastefully made, perfectly respectable experience, but it was hard not to be a little disappointed that I hadn't seen the latest Spirited Away (or even the latest Ponyo).
Thankfully, a second viewing of the film on Blu-ray (with adjusted expectations in terms of what the movie is attempting to accomplish) allowed me to better appreciate its many virtues. This is one of the gentlest animated films released in quite some time; even gentler than 2011's tender Winnie the Pooh. As you watch the animated leaves float across the film's gentle palette, listen to the soothing sound of Cecile Corbel's voice wandering over instrumentation which is simultaneously lush and delicate and immerse yourself in the film's soft but subtle sound design, you can almost feel a cool breeze blow across your face. This is the cinematic equivalent of an simple yet elegant lullaby.
Though there are threats present in The Secret World of Arrietty (chief among them a cantankerous cat and a nosy maid voiced by Carol Burnett), one could describe the film's world with the same words The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy used to describe our planet as a whole: "Mostly harmless." As such, the scenes of borrowing and exploration are infused less with a sense of tension than a sense of wonder. Time and time again, being given the opportunity to see things through little Arrietty's eyes manages to make the familiar seem fresh.
The core of the story is the relationship which develops between Arrietty and Shawn. Their youthful curiosity permits them to overcomes their natural fears and prejudices in a way their respective parents/authority figures are incapable of, and the manner in which the film subtly highlights this is one of its key attributes. It would have been so easy for The Secret World of Arrietty to turn into ham-fisted sermonizing about the importance of tolerance, but as in many other Studio Ghibli efforts (the environmentally-conscious Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind comes to mind), the filmmakers get their message across by showing rather than telling.
The U.S. version of the movie has been blessed with a stellar voice cast, starting with Disney Channel veterans Bridgit Mendler and David Henrie as Arrietty and Shawn. As in Ponyo (which employed members of the Cyrus and Jonas families), these young actors offer considerably greater range and depth than they're permitted to demonstrate elsewhere. You might guess that Arrietty's parents are comic figures considering that they're voiced by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, but the real-life husband-and-wife actually turn in very straightforward, sweet-natured, down-to-earth performances. Arnett in particular has never sounded so calm and sincere. The funniest moments are provided by Carol Burnett's villainous maid, and Burnett's husky vocal turn is accentuated perfectly by the character's amusingly frog-like face.
The Secret World of Arrietty (Blu-ray) has received a flawless transfer from the fine folks at Disney. Yes, flawless. Every frame is beautifully preserved, benefitting from stunning detail, robust colors, remarkable depth and impressive shading. It's beautiful and suffers from absolutely none of the issues which occasionally plague animated releases (banding, ringing, etc.). This is a complete knockout on a visual level; as strong as any transfer I've seen for a traditionally animated film. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track isn't quite as stunning, but it's excellent nonetheless. This is a quiet movie from start to finish, so there's nothing to give your speakers a workout, but the sound design really is superb (I love the way grass and leaves rustle beneath the large cat's feet). The only area in which the disc disappoints is the supplemental department: you're limited to a pair of music videos, a disposable 2-minute featurette on the making of a music video, some storyboards, trailers, TV spots and a DVD copy. Okay, the storyboards are nice, but why do Studio Ghibli films get so short-changed in this area?
The Secret World of Arrietty is a film which requires some patience (mostly from older viewers, I suspect younger viewers will be easily hooked by its story), but it's absolutely worth your time and attention. The stunning video and immersive audio make the Blu-ray an easy recommendation.
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