Friday, March 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Secret World of Arietty

The Secret World of Arietty *** ½
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa based on the novel by Mary Norton.
Starring: Bridgit Mendler (Arrietty), Will Arnett (Pod), David Henrie (Shawn), Amy Poehler (Homily), Moises Arias (Spiller), Carol Burnett (Hara), Gracie Poletti (Aunt Jessica), Dale Sison (Harachi).

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers animation has ever seen. Yet, at more than 70 years old, we may have to accept the fact that he may never direct another feature again. The amount of time and effort, and loving attention to detail that fills every frame of his films, is perhaps too much for someone who just wants to enjoy retirement. Miyazaki however did conceive, plan and co-write The Secret Life of Arietty, and even if it doesn’t quite have the same magic that his best films – like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away – it comes close. And in a world where almost all American animated films have a similar, computer generated look and feel, and often appeal to the lowest common denominator, it is refreshing to see an intelligent animated film aimed at kids, yet doesn’t talk down to them.

Based on Mary Norton’s beloved kids book The Borrowers, The Secret Life of Arietty centers on the title character and her family, all only a couple of inches tall, who live under a house inhabited by humans. They “borrow” things that the humans above them discard in order to survive. Families of these borrowers have been living there for generations, but Arietty and her family may be the only ones left – they certainly do not see any others around them. They stay out of view of the human world – and like it that way. Arietty is finally old enough to go on her first “borrowing” with her father.

Into the human family above comes a sickly boy named Shawn who is resting up in preparation for heart operation. He sees Arietty fleeting upon his arrival – and goes looking for her. Not out of malice, but out of genuine curiosity. The housekeeper, Hara, on the other hand isn’t quite as nice as Shawn. When she suspects that little people are afoot, she wants to capture them, not help them.

The film certainly has the look of a Miyazaki film – which isn’t surprising when you consider that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been an animator for Miyazaki for years. The outdoor scenes invoke the same sense of reverence for nature that has become a Miyazaki tradition. The indoor scenes, with the massive size compared to the small borrowers finds a sense of wonder in the ordinary that a movie like this needs.

A hallmark of Miyazaki, and really a lot of anime, has been the strong female heroine, who doesn’t need a wacky animal sidekick or prince charming to come in so she can fall in love. There is a strange, almost innocent romantic longing between Shawn and Arietty, yet for obvious reasons, it is not a typical romance, although they do grow to love each other.

 As I mentioned, the movie doesn’t quite hit the heights of Miyazaki’s best films. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky and Nausicca, are truly magical films that are beautiful, wondrous and narratively complex. The Secret Life of Arietty gets the look and feel of Miyazaki’s films almost perfect, but the story itself, as wonderful as it is, does have more than its share of lulls in it. And yet, this is still likely to be among the best animated films of 2012. It’s not really Miyazaki, but it reminds you enough of the master’s work, that I really did not mind.

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