Sunday, February 19th, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Walt Disney Pictures
94 min., dir. by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, with Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett


If given the choice, I’d prefer to see any foreign film with subtitles. Over-dubbing typically comes with exaggerated pronunciations, poor voice acting, and trashy dialogue. While the second half of The Secret World of Arrietty slips a little into familiar territory, it has so much to offer in the way of atmosphere and sound design.

Based on Mary Norton’s children’s fantasy novel, The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty is the tale of a family of tiny people living in the cellar of large house in the countryside. The people call their kind “Borrowers” since they find their way into the homes of full-sized human beings to borrow the essentials they need to survive. When a young boy arrives to stay at the country house and discovers the existence of the Borrowers, he does everything in his power to befriend the brave Arrietty. The Borrowers never let themselves be known to humans, but Arrietty can’t resist after Sho (the young boy) witnesses her trying to borrow a tissue from his room. With only the best intentions in mind, Sho’s curiosity only brings more problems to the small family living in the cellar.

Originally released in Japan in 2010, The Secret World of Arrietty comes to the U.S., given the Disney treatment. Attaching the well-known names of husband-and-wife team Amy Poehler and Will Arnett as Arrietty’s parents may have been a move to bring in viewers. However, Poehler’s voice work was thoroughly impressive in the first half of the film. Her more frantic rambling nature came out after that, but her kind and calm delivery early in the film was a pleasant surprise. The entire film seemed to follow the same process, impressing me with its technical prowess in the first half, but giving way to overacting in the second. The latter half also seems to pound out a very generic life lesson.

There are plenty of films centered on little people in a big world. Like the rest, The Secret World of Arrietty has to overlook the fact that normal-sized ears would never be able to hear these tiny people, so the story can move along. That being said, the film’s sound design is utterly brilliant in its treatment of big vs. small. The cavalcade of sound as young Sho squats down to leave Arrietty a note is a stroke of  genius. The incessant deep-toned ticking of a grandfather clock in a dark room as Arrietty and her father scavenge for items to borrow is haunting, and it’s only made better by the fact you never see the clock. The story tells itself, leaving the opportunity to pay close attention to the artwork and sound play.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a fun ride. Packed with genuine laughs, beautiful animation, and an atmosphere of devilishly good sound, it has all the pieces to make you overlook the few faults shared in common with most translated anime films.