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Even 60 years after first being published, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books remain one of the most beloved children’s novel series ever written. The years have given us several adaptations, but what about an anime take on the adventures of the Clock family? That’s what Studio Ghibli has done with Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty.
The Clock family lives in a very luxurious house, but it hardly occupies much of the space. You see, the Clocks are little people who actually try to keep their identities secret from humans. They’re also “borrowers,” meaning they raid the house when no one’s around and take various things that they need – things that won’t be missed by the humans, of course.
Since she’s almost 14, Arrietty Clock (Bridgit Mendler) wants more than anything to accompany her father Pod (Will Arnett) on a borrowing trip. Alhough her mother, Homily (Amy Poehler), isn’t keen on the idea, Arrietty and Pod make their venture anyway. While sneaking into a bedroom to grab a tissue, an ill boy named Shawn (David Henrie) sees them, setting off a chain of events that binds Arrietty and Shawn together as lifelong friends.
While The Secret World of Arrietty gets points for its visual aesthetics, what could have been a wonderfully fresh take on a classic tale lamentably fails to tackle any new ground and seems content with its own mediocrity.
The friendship built between Arrietty and Shawn feels incredibly vapid, with only a few brief and generally unproductive interactions. By the end of the film, it’s clear that we’re to have built the conclusion that true friendships and the sacrifices that come with them are worth fighting for – not that we don’t know that already – but the seemingly frivolous connection between our two protagonists doesn’t fit into that didacticism very well. If there’s such a strong friendship to be had, we never get the chance to see it.
The villain character found in the nurse, Hara (wonderfully voiced by the legendary Carol Burnett), doesn’t help in the moral department either, as she brings little to the table in regards to urgency. Less treacherous methods than the ones she employs can easily meet her not-at-all sinister goal, but with such deceit and trickery is the hope that the film boasts a more significant conflict.
This side plot involving the villain – well, it’s not much of a side plot, but it sure feels like one due to the peculiar flow of the film – temporarily makes the chain of events more interesting and relays that it’s more important to care about the lives of others than your own reputation. Sadly, the conveyance of such a significant lesson comes across as more accidental than purposeful.
These criticisms aren’t meant to completely dismiss “Arrietty” as quality product, however. A fair share of problems accompany this obviously dubbed U.S. release, but as is the case with other Studio Ghibli products, the attention paid to details in character design, landscapes, and scenery goes above and beyond the norm and achieves the utmost of excellence.
What’s more, the cast boasts terrific voice performances from Mendler, who as the curious titular character marvelously captures a childlike sense of curiosity and overconfidence, and Henrie, who brings a sense of innocence and heart to the weak Shawn. Poehler and Arnett also turn in some good work as the parents of the Clock family.
While it’s visually impressive and quickly breezes through its short running time, The Secret World of Arrietty fails to capture the imagination and fails to make a strong impression with its intended lessons or rather uninteresting set of shockingly stock characters.