“The Secret World of Arrietty,” by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, was released Feb. 17th as an animated, family film based on the children’s series, “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. The U.S. version cast actors Bridget Mendler and David Henrie from the Disney T.V. series “Wizards of Waverly Place” to play the voices of the main characters, Arrietty and Shawn. Arrietty (Mendler) is a Thumbelina-sized person living under a human house with her parents. Shawn (Henrie) is a boy who goes to his grandmother’s house, the same under which Arrietty lives, to rest for the weekend before heart surgery. Each facing extreme obstacles for survival and cut off from the rest of the world, Arrietty and Shawn decide to help one another. As a result, this family film focuses on the themes of friendship, determination, and hope. Yet despite the notable achievement in creating an enchanting world of large and small, this film falls short due to its slow pace and uninvested characters.
The movie starts off with Shawn who, upon arriving at his grandmother’s house, catches a glimpse of Arrietty. He later learns the story about his grandfather and mother believing there were tiny people living under the house. The film then shifts its focuses to Arrietty as she leads the way under the house and into a small set of rooms she, her often hysterical mother and her wise father occupy. They are “borrowers,” and take unnoticed supplies from the house to survive. It is Arrietty’s 14th birthday and her first chance to borrow. However, she quickly finds the human world to be overwhelmingly large. Despite her father’s warnings, she meets Shawn who is searching for a friend. Trust is tested, escapes are made, and they ultimately work together to help each other.
Visually, the film is very appealing. There is great detail in the colorful scenes outside with flowers and shrubs and also within from the perspective of a tiny person who must use double-sided tape to climb up a table. Unfortunately, at times the focus on scenery or the detail within the dollhouse, later discovered by Arrietty, is too lengthy. As a result, it detracts from the marvel of the character rather than emphasizing it. With such an intriguing set-up it was disappointing to discover that the pace of events is greatly drawn out. In both the large and miniature worlds, it seems to take an exceedingly long time to make any progress.
Even accepting the fact that animated films do not have overly complex characters, this film teeters on extremes. Arrietty’s mother always seems to be overemotional and her father rarely has anything to say. It was, however, a good portrayal of a traditional family which then juxtaposes Shawn’s, whose parents are divorced and constantly working.
The sound in the film is particularly well done. When we are viewing from Arrietty’s perspective, the noises of water dripping and a cat running through the grass are amplified. In a way, the audience is transformed both visually and audibly to her small size. However, the dialogue is sometimes very stiff and unnecessary. There are instances in which body language is enough to relate the emotion or response. Overall the tone of the music is somber with hints of more lively tunes. There is little musical variation of harp and piano throughout the film which emphasized the slow scenes.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” never seems to take flight as one might hope from the intriguing tale of miniature people beneath the floorboards. Suspenseful moments are noteworthy but most do not lead up to a critical climax. Though it remains true to the themes of friendship, the overall spectacle is not enough to truly engage the viewer. Therefore, too short a focus on the motivations of the characters and too lengthy in scene made this film less entertaining than hoped for.