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Feature


An ill boy named Sho (Shawn in the US version, Ryunosuke Kamiki/David Henrie) is sent to his mother’s childhood home to live with his great aunt, Sadako (Jessica in the US version, Keiko Takeshita/Gracie Poletti). While walk to the front door Sho notices a cat stalking what appears to be a tiny person. That tiny person is Arrietty (Mirai Shida/Bridgit Mendler), a ‘Borrower’, one of a race of secretive creatures that live in human homes, where they ‘borrow’ supplies in such small amounts no human ever notices. Arrietty lives with her father, Pod (Tomokazu Miura/Will Arnett), and mother Spiller (Tatsuya Fujiwara/Amy Poehler). That night Pod takes his daughter above the floorboards for her first borrowing trip. After collecting kitchen supplies, including a sugar cube, Pod leads Arrietty into Sho's bedroom, where he shows an intricate dollhouse made by Sho’s mother, and the two attempt to procure a tissue from Sho’s bedside. Assuming Sho is asleep, Arrietty lets her guard down, and is seen. Startled, she drops the sugar cube to the floor, and quickly follows her father to escape. The next morning Sho leaves the sugar cube at the entrance to the Borrower’s lair entrance with a note.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The
Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and its follow-up stories were favourites among my household growing up, and I’ve generally enjoyed most adaptations over the years including Halmark Hall of Fame and BBC television versions, and Peter Hewitt’s 1997 live action version starring John Goodman (which in an odd bit of unexpected trivia I just discovered lost the 1998 BAFTA to Gary Oldman's f-word record-breaking Nil by Mouth of all things). I even watched the DIC Entertainment animated rip-off series, The Littles throughout the ‘80s. This all said, I couldn’t personally see much reason for Hayao Miyazaki’s world renowned Ghibli Studios to take on yet another adaptation of the popular series. I had to remind myself of a few things. One, future childhoods don’t stop with my own, and none of the previously available versions are exactly what I’d consider ultimate adaptations of the stories. Two, it’s possible the series has had little to no impact in Japan over the years. Most importantly, I have to maintain a certain degree of faith in the Ghibli staff’s choices. After all, the studio’s main man found a new way to retell an even more over-told story called The Little Mermaid when he co-wrote and directed Ponyo in 2008.

The Borrowers fits the Ghibli glove very well, leaving screenwriters Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa’s little to do in adjusting the story for the studio’s modern sensibilities. Norton’s first book revolves around many of Miyazaki’s favourite tropes, including a magical/supernatural world hidden within the fringes of our own ( Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, Ponyo), a misfit leading pair that meet and create an unbreakable, pseudo-romantic, pseudo-familial like bond despite their huge social differences ( Castle in the Sky, Whisper of the Heart, Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo), and specifically female (usually only) children approaching adulthood with trepidation ( Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Whisper of the Heart). There’s also an almost fetishistic focus on the appropriated Borrowers technology, clothing and homes, which perfectly suits the somewhat fetishistically detailed universes of specifically Miyazaki’s films. There are also excuses to include cute critters inherit in the material, which is a consistent Miyazaki trademark at this point. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been a mainstay around Studio Ghibli for years in various capacities (including assistant director on Goro Miyazaki’s lack-luster Tales of Earth Sea), but Arrietty marks his first shot at the top position of director. Yonebayashi certainly has the Ghibli house style down, calmly welcoming his all ages audience into this magical world, where they can explore every inch of the frame without overwhelming them with editing techniques.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The
But even with all the pieces in their correct place, something is still missing here. Arrietty is never as engaging as the studio’s best films, and tonally verges on listless rather than the preferably gentle. There’s still plenty of awe, and a definitive sense of class missing from lesser American studio output, but the tempo slows to a crawl anytime we’re forced to spend too much time with the human characters (which I suppose might be the point, but never the less, vexing). The general lack of comedy hurts a bit too, though once we’re over the hump of the semi-stale second act the melancholic tones feel more genuinely earned. It’s also rare that a Ghibli fantasy film is this stationary. The action Yonebayashi does supply is uniquely Ghibli-esque, however, and cleverly contrasts the sheer danger action poses to the Borrowers with the relatively mundane, almost funny way the same action effects the humans. As far as the technical aspects are concerned, this traditionally Ghibli look is a bit strange following Miyazaki’s more blobby and experimental approach with Ponyo, but the animation itself is never anything short of gorgeous, and the painted backgrounds are mind-boggling in their intricacy, leading to moments where I was briefly drawn out of the film and forced to realize that with practically every cut artist were required to create glorious paintings, any of which would be considered an artistic achievement alone.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The

Video


This 1080, 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer is simply stunning from start to finish. Often for cell animation HD qualities are only particularly valuable for their cleanly colour qualities, but in this case, as in the case of many of Studio Ghibli’s recent features, the Blu-ray format’s detail abilities are implemented 100% throughout the film. The intricately painted backgrounds are awesome, creating vast complexities in every frame the included DVD copy cannot touch, and this being an animated film, there’s rarely decrease in frequency due to shallow focus. Details are so sharp you can actually see paint textures and pencil mark highlights. Colours are vibrant, clean, and cut well against each other regardless of complexity and diversity. I was going to complain about what I thought was minor compression noise in some of the warm and solid cells, but I realized this was usually just the paint texture of the cells themselves. Despite the rather massive difference between the detail levels of the backgrounds and foreground cells, the two elements blend quite effectively, and there are only rare instances where the disc’s high level of clarity breaks the illusion. The black pen outlines of the cell elements occasionally feature fine, white haloes, but outside of these digital artefacts aren’t really an issue.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The

Audio


I continue to feel myself torn when it comes to the English dubs on Studio Ghibli releases. The purist in me, the one who never listens to prestige live-action films dubbed out of their own language (exploitation ‘60s and ‘70s flicks notwithstanding), says that these films were written in Japanese for Japanese actors, and I should respect every ounce of that effort. But then there’s a part of me that remembers how involved Hayao Miyazaki himself is with his foreign dubs, and that respectable people around Pixar have been putting real effort into the English language experience (though the UK release features the better voice cast). Then I remember that I actually preferred the English dub on Spirited Away, and notice that none other than Gary Rydstrom directed the English dub himself, and I simply don’t know what to do. In the end I’ve listened to both tracks on and off for this review, but most of what I have to say will refer to the English dub since that is the track I’m assuming most viewers will be listening to. At least this time around Disney is including both dubs in DTS-HD Master Audio rather than just the English one.

Each track has its advantages. The Japanese track is a bit louder and features a more consistent volume level overall, while the English track features a slightly better blend of directional elements, likely due to Rydstrom’s influence. The stereo and surround channels are best utilized when aurally describing the scale of the human environments around the Borrowers. Early in the film Arrietty and her father make a nighttime run for supplies, and as they step into the kitchen she is overwhelmed by the creaks and moans of the room. The channels buzz with directional effects, and the LFE lightly throbs to signify general danger. The scale issue plays into the vocal performances as well. When things are presented from a Borrower's point of view humans speak in a booming, occasionally multi-channel manner, and when things are presented from a human point of view Borrows speak in a definitively quieter tone. French musician Cécile Corbel musical score is a bit too precious for my taste, especially when vocals come into play, but the Celtic melodies certainly blend well with the film’s earthy style.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The

Extras


The extras here don’t amount to a whole lot, but do include a entirely storyboarded version of the film (which has become a Ghibli tradition on Blu-ray and DVD), presented in full HD video and 2.0 English dub audio, a series of Japanese trailers and TV spots (13:40, HD), Cécile Corbel’s ‘Arrietty’s Song’ music video (3:40, HD), Bridgit Mendler’s ‘Summertime’ music video (3:00, HD), and the making-of ‘Summertime’ featurette (2:00, HD).

Overall


The Secret World of Arrietty is a gorgeous and ultimately touching animated feature experience, but doesn’t quite live up to the impossibly high standards set by the previous Studio Ghibli releases. It’s far from a Tales of Earthsea disappointment, it just isn’t another Spirited Away. Disney’s Blu-ray release features little in the way of extra features, but the 1080p transfer is sharp and vibrant, and the soundtrack options include both the English dub and the original Japanese dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

 Secret World of Arrietty, The
 Secret World of Arrietty, The
 Secret World of Arrietty, The


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