By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
There are only a handful of animation houses in the world with a sustained track record of success. Pixar, of course, is one, and it would be difficult to point out a weak link in Nick Park and Aardman Animation’s filmography. I guess you could include Disney’s non-Pixar efforts as well, at least if you ignore the direct-to-video market.
Currently in a death struggle with the American Pie franchise to choke the most life out of their original properties
One last example that I can think of is Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Gibli. The master himself hasn’t directed a feature since 2008’s Ponyo and I hope that he’ll eschew retirement and give us one more Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. In the interim, though, he’s been molding the next generation, including his own son and the director of this film, Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the classic children’s novel The Borrowers, translating its quaint Englishness to the Japanese countryside. Arrietty is a young Borrower, a race of tiny people who survive by “borrowing” tiny portions of various resources from the fearsome, massive Human Beans, in whose houses they live. When Arrietty is discovered by a sickly human boy, her world and that of her family is turned upside down.
This film is signature Studio Gibli, lovingly rendering The Borrower’s fantastic world with traditional animation in their trademark style. Anyone who’s seen the live-action, John Goodman version of the tale or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids will be familiar with this type of world, where toys turn practical and beetles become venison, but this film puts its own spin on it, and lingers on the inherent beauty in this unique perspective a little longer than its counterparts.
Speaking this evil might will it into existence, but how haven’t they remade this yet? With Adam Sandler?
The strength of this film is in the small touches, but there are pleasures to be had as well in the story, even if it is familiar. Special kudos go to the excellent characterization of Arrietty, whose innocence and bravery give us a strong young female role model, a category which has been in short supply lately, unless you count ‘mini-Kardashian’ as a desirable archetype.
Miyazaki’s proteges have a while to go, though, before they reach his heights. As charming as this film is, it has its problems. In particular, it tends a bit too much to the overly-sugary and the obvious. An important change from the source material was to turn the human boy’s disease into a life-threatening one. This lame grab at the heartstrings does nothing for the plot besides tripping my intricate cynic alarms.
Catherine Zeta-Jones being inpractically curvy helps with that, though
I also had to raise an eyebrow at the semi-obligatory environmental message, which was fine but didn’t need to be expressly spelled out. Oh, and after the ending I found what I’m pretty sure is a cavity. Now, I’m not saying they’re related, but I’m not going to say they aren’t, either.
I’m aware that the music teen girls listen to is not designed with me in mind, and I’m generally o.k. with that. But goddam, I wanted to find a butterfly and punch it square in its tiny throat after enduring the title song.
This film can be mite too precious at times, but if you can look past it you’ll find plenty of rewards in the world it creates.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time the housekeeper makes a bizarre face
Take a Drink: whenever you hear/read ‘human bean’
Drink a Shot: every time that goddam crow attacks