A World of Wonder Under the Floorboards

The ordinary looks extraordinary in the family film The Secret World of Arrietty.

The Secret World of Arrietty just might change the way you look at the world around you — right around you. A wide-eyed sense of discovery and revelation permeates the film, and what it reveals is ... the mystery and wonder of an ordinary home.

 Written by animation master Hayao Miyazaki and directed by animator and first-time director Yonebayashi Hiromasa, The Secret World of Arrietty follows in the footsteps of ultra-gentle Studio Ghibli family fare like Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Ghibli films are renowned for painterly animation rich in authentic detail. Yet seldom if ever has a Ghibli film, or any film, looked quite so closely and lovingly at the trappings of ordinary life: at floorboards and molding, bricks and tiles, ivy climbing a wall.

The Secret World of Arrietty looks closely at these things because its heroine Arrietty, a Borrower, is only about four inches tall. Her “secret world” is in the hidden spaces under floorboards and within walls, but the ordinary spaces of the house are no less magical.

I have no prior history with the Borrowers, created in the 1950s by children’s author Mary Norton for a series of popular books and depicted in a number of small-screen adaptations and a well-received 1997 big-screen film. 

Based on a brief perusal of Norton’s first Borrowers book this week, it seems The Secret World of Arrietty, um, borrows themes and plot points, including the names of the Borrower family — young Arrietty and her parents, level-headed Pod and nervous Homily — but charts its own plot in its own setting, present-day Japan rather than Victorian England.

In some ways, Arrietty echoes Miyazaki’s great classic My Neighbor Totoro. Both films begin with a young protagonist (in Totoro there are two young sisters; here, it’s a boy named Shawn) arriving at an unfamiliar house in the country and discovering the strange, elusive beings who live there. The older generation pass on memories and lore regarding the mysterious creatures, but it’s generally the young who see them. 

What is unique to Arrietty is that it shows us both perspectives: the human and the other. Our first sight of Arrietty (voiced in the American dub by Bridgit Mendler) is through the eyes of the boy, who catches a fleeting glimpse of a tiny female figure vanishing in the grass. But we also see the “Beans” (or human beings) and their world from the Borrowers’ point of view. 

Arrietty is a winsome protagonist: spirited, coltish, wide-eyed, eager to take up the family trade. With her hair pulled back in a tiny butterfly clip and a found pin at her side like a sword, she feels ready for anything — a soul sister to the titular heroine of Kiki’s Delivery Service. It must be acknowledged, though, that where Kiki inhabited a world full of engaging personalities, Arrietty is the most personable character in her film.

 Her father Pod (Will Arnett), quite unlike the portly, bowler-wearing figure of the books, is a strong, silent action hero and jack-of-all-trades — MacGyver crossed with Pa from the Little House books, though without Pa’s humorous, playful side. The first night he takes Arrietty borrowing with him we see his skills through her shining eyes. “Pa, you are great!” she whispers. Later, though Arrietty has made a serious slip, Pod praises her: “I am very proud of you. A lesser Borrower would have panicked and run away.” It’s a rare and welcome father-daughter dynamic in a family film.

The mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), is a somewhat comic, excitable figure, and she worries constantly about her husband and daughter (at one point even briefly praying for them). All in all, it’s a lovely family — a point brought home by Shawn’s wistful comment to Arrietty: “So, you have a family. That must be nice.” Shawn explains that his own parents, whom we learn are divorced, are “both very busy with their work.” It’s a nice balance of acknowledging the modern reality of broken families while also depicting how things are meant to be.

 The heart of the film’s power is its visualization of how the Borrowers live. The whole movie is one imaginative inspiration after another: A row of nails make a bridge; a series of staples, a fixed ladder. In almost every scene there is a new revelation. Further praise along this line would turn into a catalogue of invention that would spoil the reader’s own discovery of the film. One of the niftiest aspects of the Borrowers’ scaled-down lives involves the things that don’t scale: When they pour tea from a tiny teapot, a giant drop plops in the cup, and the grains of sugar in the sugar bowl are like small nuts. Likewise, when Homily does the cooking, it’s on a flame the size of a pilot light. (This is where live-action movies about tiny people often stumble: In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, when a boy falls into a bowl of Cheerios, the swimming-pool-sized splash gives it away.)

With neither the visual nor plot-level weirdness of the likes of Ponyo and Spirited Away, The Secret World of Arrietty is one of the most straightforward, accessible Ghibli films ever made. In Japan, Ghibli films regularly top the box office, and Arrietty was the highest-grossing film of 2010. (Spirited Away surpassed James Cameron’s Titanic to become the top-grossing film in Japan of all time.) In America, alas, Ghibli films open quietly to small audiences of art house and animation aficionados and a narrow slice of the family audience.

Even John Lasseter and the might of Disney marketing have not so far been able to persuade the wider American audience that Ghibli’s lush, humane films are more deserving of attention than Hollywood trash like The Chipmunks and The Smurfs. The fault is not with our children. I can’t think that there is an 8-year-old in the world who would not be entranced by The Secret World of Arrietty, unless his or her imagination has been crushed by soulless feature-length commercials for toys.

Decades ago, as a young art student, I learned that no matter how many times you’ve seen something, you don’t really know what it looks like until you try to draw it. Watch The Secret World of Arrietty with your eyes open, and see the secret world in which we all live revealed. 

Steven Greydanus is the Register’s film critic. 

Content Advisory: A couple of mildly frightening moments. Fine family viewing.