Movie review: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ (2012)

In theaters

“The Secret World of Arrietty,” written by Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa and Mary Norton (novel “The Borrowers”), directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 94 minutes, rated G.

Based on “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” tells the tale of Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), a young boy battling a life-threatening heart disease, who moves out to his mother’s old house in the country for a summer of peace and tranquility before a serious operation determines his fate.

On his first day there, Shawn gets a glimpse of a doll-sized girl, Arrietty, (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) known as a Borrower. She and her family have inhabited the house for generations, living off of stolen items such as buttons, crackers and cubes of sugar that humans won’t notice if they go missing. Against the will of her parents, Arrietty begins to trust Shawn and build a friendship with him, endangering their secret life under the floorboards.

As with every Studio Ghibli feature, such as “Spirited Away” or “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Arrietty’s” animation if gawk-worthy, as director Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes full advantage exploring the wondrous, scaled-down world of the Borrowers. The day-to-day living of these tiny people – venturing out on borrowing missions, evading cats and mice, and finding uses for our household knickknacks – is as engrossing as the animation.

However, Disney attempts to Americanize “Arrietty” without damaging its integrity too badly. Instead, we get a compromised mash-up of East and West that feels a little disoriented. The film’s dialogue and score, along with some Japanese-inspired ballads, will struggle to win over mainstream American audiences, while the voice acting will alienate die-hard anime fans. For Disney, there’s really no winning.

Mendler and Will Arnett are well cast as Arrietty and her father, Pod, while Amy Poehler brings too much eccentric energy to Arrietty’s mother, Homily, and Henrie’s trademark “Wizards of Waverly Place” tomfoolery is stifled by the ailing Shawn’s somberness. Sadly, Henrie, whose future looks bright in Hollywood, is just the wrong guy for the job here.

This inconsistency in voice acting is just another reason foreign films should be subtitled and never dubbed, and probably a reason most anime enthusiasts will avoid “Arrietty” in theaters. Or they saw it months ago before it even hit American multiplexes.

But for the rest of us who have little to no idea what “Naruto” or “Bleach” are, and have hardly scratched the surface of what Studio Ghibli has to offer, there’s too much good in the pint-sized world of “Arrietty” to ignore. Even with the dubbing.

Grade: B-

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3 Responses to Movie review: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ (2012)

  1. C. Wilke says:

    Hi Joel,
    My 11-year-old daughter and I thought what better way to spend a weekday afternoon off from school today than at the movies. Our first choice, Big Miracles, was sold out by the time we reached the admissions counter, so we opted for Arrietty. Walking into a full theatre, we were lucky to land two side-by-side seats. To my immediate left were seated a 5- or 6-year-old child and her mother of East Asian descent. This child’s eyes (as well as my child’s eyes) never left the screen. Hungry to travel the world by armchair, I found the animation and scores refreshing from the standard family movie fare that I am so used to seeing. But I have to tell you, at the end of this movie, I wanted to turn to my left and look that little girl square into her eyes and tell her that Arrietty may indeed be smart and beautiful, but she’s a downright imposter in this 94-minute world so artfully influenced by the Japanese. I wanted to tell her that if she were to ask the real Arrietty to stand up, she’d indeed be smart and beautiful … and guess what? … she’d look just like “you and your mother.” Instead, I reminded my fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired daughter that beauty, intelligence, compassion and bravery come in every color. Beauty is what we as a people, society, world embrace it to be. I’d like to remind Disney that it has enormous influence and even larger responsibility on its shoulders to do its part in conveying this message–especially to our children. It had such opportunity here to get it right.

    It didn’t.

    • blahblah says:

      Do you think Disney drew this or something? If a Japanese company wants to draw Japanese/Asian people they can. I can’t even tell what race they are besides most of them being from a white ethnicity. Please elaborate how she is an impostor?

    • justtapointout says:

      not sure if you’re aware, but all the interaction disney has with studio ghibli (a 27-year-old japanese studio) are the international distribution rights. it’s actually quite a shame that disney has their dirty mitts on them, but at least S.G. has a fairly strict “no edits” policy.

      i’m not sure if you’re trying to white-knight for people of asian descent, nut if you were at all familiar with the S.G.’s works you’d know that this by and large their style (see “Howl’s Moving Castle” as a similar example). that and the fact that strong use of asian features in anime/manga is not very common in general; unless race is a prominent story feature, or is it using a particular period style/setting.

      short version: don’t place the blame on the original artists (it’s their work, they do a good job with it), or even disney (you would have little right to, considering you are paying them). don’t blame anyone at all, because it’s not going to do any more good than being happy and treating others humanely.

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