The new anime version of “The Borrrowers,” titled “The Secret World of Arrietty” by screenwriter and “supervisor” Hiyao Miyazaki, has the fascination with household “spirits,” the same lovely color palatte and attention to detail that his films are famous for. But Miyazaki, director of “Ponyo,” Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” didn’t direct this Studio Ghibli film.
Perhaps that is why it lacks his sense of whimsy, that little sprinkling of Miyazki magic that the Japanese director has given his best work over the decades.
Mary Norton’s oft-filmed 60-year-old novel is about the miniature people who live in the walls and below the floorboards of old houses, creatures who “borrow” what they need from the “human beans.” Every shopping trip is an expedition — nabbing one cube of sugar, that could last them months, a cracker than can be crushed to make Borrower bread. They live by two rules. “Borrowers take only what they need,” and once they’ve been seen, it’s time to move. Those humans and their curiosity are nothing but trouble for Borrowers.
Arriety (voiced by Bridgit Mendler of TV’s “Good Luck Charlie” and “Wizards of Waverly Place”) is a 13 year-old straining at the limits of her world. She only knows her family, can only hope that there are other Borrowers, still surviving elsewhere. She sneaks outside (Miyazki’s love of nature), tempts the evil ravens who wouldn’t mind gobbling her up as a snack — and is spied by a sickly human boy. Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) wants to help, and Arriety wants to make contact. She sees no threat from this fellow her own age and no need to move, or even tell her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). Naturally, they see theings differently.
The gorgeous pastels of Studio Ghiibli films and famous attention to detail are much in evidence in this Hiromasa Yonebavashi film. The Borrowers’ world of re-purposed human detritus – pins and empty spools and discarded bolts, doublesided tape, which allows father Pod (Arnett) to scale the heights of a kitchen counter to fetch sugar — is ingeniusly realized.
Carol Burnett voices an old housekeeper who longs for the day when she can catch a real Borrower and be exonerated from those childhood charges that she was “crazy,” one of the film’s many lightly humorous touches. And there are hints of the larger world of Borrowers beyond this garden cottage. Norton wrote more than one book in the series, after all.
But Miyazaki, who co-wrote the script, had nowhere to take it. Either the Borrowers leave, or they stay. They’re either discovered and survive or captured and exposed. There’s no romance, no way to open the tale up, despite the fact that they’re using that most fantastical film form, animation.
So as pretty as this is, this “Secret World” is too Earthbound by far.
MPAA Rating: G.
Cast: The voices of Bridgit Mendler, Carol Burnett, Amy Poheler, Will Arnett
Credits: Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, English language adaptation by Karey Kirkpartrick, based on the Mary Norton novel. A Walt Disney release. Running time: 1:34