A lot of American children’s films are all about friendship and being yourself. The movies hold your hand and soothe your kids with familiar voices and hypnotizing madcap action.
Only Japan’s Studio Ghibli tosses kids into the dangerous world and exposes them to a lonely, often painful existence before showing them the magic within. “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a touching, but tough children’s film about survival, self-sufficiency and looking the fear of the world right in the face.
After beloved masterpieces like “Grave of the Fireflies” and at least a dozen great ones over the last few years by Hayao Miyazaki, Disney has swept up the distribution of the studio’s output and redubbed their films with American actors so that even obscure animes like “The Secret World of Arrietty” can be seen widely.
But a fair warning to parents: the film is shockingly bleak at times. Fox News should be less worried about the film’s supposed parallels to the 99 percenters and more concerned about how a naïve child will deal with the images of feeling small and insignificant in the eyes of the world around you.
This is a daily problem for 14-year-old Arrietty (Bridget Mendler) and her family of Borrowers, little people who live beneath a house and survive on small resources the humans will barely notice are gone. She and her parents may be the only Borrowers left alive, and in such a constantly dangerous world, their philosophy is to take only what they need to survive.
How many children’s films would impose a survival instinct in its characters and create a fear of the broader world? One of the film’s most powerful moments shows an unseen hand decimating the Borrowers home. In reality, it’s a small-scale event that feels massive and terrifying because of how well director Hiromasa Yonebayashi creates a great sense of scope.
Arrietty and her father Pod (Will Arnett) move around the house in ingeniously acrobatic ways, using staples and nails as stepping-stones, wielding pins as swords and grappling with hooks made of paper clips. Studio Ghibli can narrate these music driven spectacles with stunning ease, as images of scurrying legs and figures rocketing through tunnels resemble some of the more stunning moments of “Spirited Away.”
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that it can get awfully twisted as it reaches its climactic moments. The home’s maid, Hara (Carol Burnett), almost sadistically captures one of the Borrowers as the human family’s son lays deathly ill in bed. “The Secret World of Arrietty’s” world outlook is surprisingly bleak, and it doesn’t shy away from a sad goodbye of an ending either.
Regardless, this is one of the more colorful and inventive films of the year so far. It’s a touching taste of Japanese philosophy made readily available to mainstream American audiences.
3 ½ stars