Studio Ghibli's adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers received a full-fledged media push here in the U.S. when it was released theatrically, with what felt like the most exposure for the beloved studio's movies here in the U.S. since they partnered up with Disney a few years back. And it's no wonder given the growing familiarity with Ghibli and by extension Miyazaki's work among viewers of a certain age stateside. Combined with source material that many viewers might have at least a cursory familiarity with (Norton's novel has been in print since 1952), this should have been a slam dunk for everyone involved.
But The Secret World of Arrietty feels like it's missing something when stacked against other films from the studio, an essential element that has made the rest of their output so memorable. While there's no one out there complaining that Arrietty is some kind of major misstep like Tales of Earthsea, their 2006 adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin novels, Arrietty nevertheless feels slight.
The story opens with young Shawn (David Henrie) arriving at the countryside home of his grandmother in the middle of the summer. He's not sure, but he thinks he catches a glimpse of a tiny girl scrambling through the grass. Sure enough, that was Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), herself a teen and a "borrower," a tiny person who lives under Shawn's grandmother's house along with her parents Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler). This close-knit family survives by "borrowing" the food and supplies they need from the house above, and Arrietty is excited about her first official trip with her father up above.
Their rules are strict: they must not be seen by humans and if they are, then they must move. Two other families used to live nearby, but one moved and the other simply vanished, and Arrietty's family isn't even sure if there are any other borrowers left. This gives the movie, in part, this very melancholy tone which is one of the things that may stick with you after watching the film. Anyway, Arrietty's first borrowing doesn't go according to plan and she and Shawn strike up something like a friendship, the incredibly lonely and frail boy looking for someone to share his time with and be able to protect.
The structure of the movie from there mostly revolves around the tentative friendship between the two young people as well as a nosy, slightly manic housekeeper's (Carol Burnett) efforts to find and trap the little people. Both plots are pretty binary (will this thing happen or will it not) making the movie feel thin, like it's lacking tension. This is, I believe, the second shortest Ghibli film behind My Neighbor Totoro, so the lack of narrative heft isn't a huge problem, but that leaves the movie with fewer memorable moments.
What does feel problematic is the movie's lack of exploration of "borrowing" and what it means for the tiny characters, and from here on I'm going to spoil a little bit of the movie: in the second half, Pod meets another Borrower named Spiller who seems to, for all intents and purposes, live off the land and what he's able to make for himself. The borrowers, good, gentle people that they are, never return anything, making what they're doing stealing. It's weird to discuss the movie in those terms but when you have Hara the housekeeper pointing in out, it's strange that it never goes acknowledged in the story.
In spite of that, if you're looking for a more downbeat Ghibli experience (and this isn't necessarily a bad thing), Arriety is certainly worth checking out.
Audio and Video
Arrietty isn't the kind of movie that's going to blow out your speakers or anything, but there are some small, simple pleasures to be gained from the 5.1 audio mix that makes the most of the natural sounds of animals and household noises in the film.
Since this is a newer release, picture quality isn't an issue, which is to say that you shouldn't expect to go poring over it frame by frame looking for errors. The image is bright and vibrant, fully exploiting the varied color palette employed here.
Arietty didn't get a lot of love on the special features side, particularly when it comes to providing insight into the production. The disc includes a music video from theme song composer Cecile Corbel, Japanese and English trailers, "Summertime" music video from Bridgit Mendler, and a making of for that music video. Notably missing is the usual John Lasseter introduction, which feels like kind of a slight towards poor little Arrietty.