Unlike a number of anime fans, growing up I didn’t really know anything about Studio Ghibli. I think at some point in high school I began to hear mentions of movies like “Laputa” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but I’ve never seen any myself and knew pretty much nothing about any of them.
Then one day, while watching Disney Channel (I was a big fan of Wizards of Waverly Place growing up, don’t judge me!), they had a short special on a new movie that Disney was publishing: The Secret World of Arrietty. It had a few known Disney Channel stars (namely David Henrie (whom I keep calling Justin in my head for some reason) and Bridgit Mendler) and some other actors too… Anyway, long story short, this is how I ended up watching my first ever Studio Ghibli film: they aired it one time on Disney Channel!
Since then, I’ve now watched a handful of other films, but I still have a long way to go before I’d consider myself up to speed on all things Studio Ghibli. But hey, gotta start somewhere, right?
Needing somewhere quiet and relaxing to rest before an upcoming heart surgery, Shawn spends a week with his great aunt Jessica who lives in a more rural area. Just his great-aunt Jessica lives out here, alongside her caretaker and housemaid Hara (who also becomes Shawn’s caretaker while he’s visiting). It’s a quaint little house with a nice backyard and garden, filled with decorations and knick-knacks collected over the years, and also a small family of tiny people who come out at night to “borrow” some things.
Oh, yes, you read that right. These little people, who call themselves “Borrowers” and can fit into a human’s hand, have found a nice spot to build themselves a little home underneath the floorboards of a closet in the house. They do everything they can to stay out of the way of the humans and not get noticed or caught, but at night, they’ll climb out and grab a few things that they need to survive, which their human hosts probably won’t notice missing: a single tissue from a tissue box, or a single leaf of a plant.
While there used to be more Borrowers living in Aunt Jessica’s house, now it’s just one small family of 3: Pod, the father; Homily, the mother; and their young daughter Arrietty. And they’re peacefully living their lives, until one day the human boy Shawn thinks he’s caught a glimpse of a tiny young girl climbing among some leaves in a garden…
(And yes, I realize that Disney renamed some of the characters when the brought the film over to the United States in an attempt to “American-ize” the film. As these names are the ones I’m most familiar with though, they’ll be the ones I’ll stick with. The differences are: Sho (the young boy) is now Shawn, Haru (the caretaker) is now Hara (a strange minute difference, maybe Haru “didn’t sound feminine enough”?), but then there’s great-aunt Sadako, which they just changed to… Jessica. We’ll discuss more of the regional differences later.)
The Plot and Characters
(Editors note: added an extra paragraph since the initial publish.)
One of the best things about a Studio Ghibli production is the film’s ability to whisk you away on a journey. While some films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are more clearly framed as an actual journey, their other films also have a journey of their own, even if you aren’t venturing into some other world. My Neighbor Totoro, while more akin to the slice of life anime of today, is still a journey, following Mei and Satsuki as they encounter Totoro and how they handle things just not going their way. The Secret World of Arrietty is definitely a journey too, but one that entirely takes place within a cozy rural home.
The concept and world of “Borrowers” is fascinating to me. These tiny, resourceful people that reside in some makeshift home underneath the floorboards of your house, occasionally emerging from hiding spots to pick up discarded and misplaced items and sneaking into your kitchen for a single tissue or sugar cube. There’s a lot of details and small quirky-but-world-building things that we see which helps sell the realism of such an idea, and gives character to these… characters. While practically impossible, I wouldn’t mind finding myself the unwitting host of such a little family, giving new purpose to various small items that I probably wouldn’t have noticed had gone missing. May as well have someone making use of my junk if I’m not!
Unfortunately, while some of us might find fascination or amusement with such an idea, others might see such a scene and start freaking out about little pests or thieves living in the walls (and arguably, they’d be justifiable in their feelings). I’d liken myself to Shawn, while others would be more like the character who winds up being the eventual antagonist in this story.
And on a basic level, that is the main conflict here. While a family of Borrowers would probably love to have a Shawn to live with and assist them, they can’t take the risk of being found out by some human who would trap their family in a jar and call in some pest exterminator once they’re discovered.
For our protagonist – little Arrietty, age 14 – this would be, I’d imagine, the biggest lesson that gets drilled into her from birth: don’t get seen by a human, don’t trust humans, avoid humans at all costs. However, after accidentally exposing herself to Shawn, she seemingly almost immediately throws out her family’s wisdom and instead makes herself obviously known to Shawn to say “hey, leave us alone” (rather than staying hidden and extra cautious, leaving Shawn to believe he was imagining things), thus setting up the events that transpire from there. While obviously this entire movie wouldn’t exist at all if Arrietty didn’t make that move, it does seem a bit strange to me that she would go against her father’s warnings and do the things she’s explicitly told is the biggest of big no-no’s. At the same time though, she’s young and headstrong, boldly making decisions although she doesn’t always consider the consequences all the way through. That’s not to call her bullheaded or stupid, however, and her impulsiveness has helped her just as much as it had hindered her.
This makes her an interesting contrast with her parents. Her mother, Homily, is skittish and full of worries, but it comes from a place of love and caring, and she does what she can to bring comfort to herself and her family. Arrietty’s father, Pod, is more a man of action rather than words, and always has a plan; setting out at night on “borrowing” expeditions to collect items from around the house and spending his days tinkering to make clever tools to use on future nights. Not sure how these risk-averse parents ended up with the adventurous spirit that is Arrietty.
Immediately coming out of the movie, Shawn – the movie’s other protagonist, and eventually the human helping hand for Arrietty – seemed like he didn’t have much of a personality beyond being simply selfless and caring. However, upon further thought, I think the movie does subtly give us a bit more to him. We learn that he has some heart condition, about to undergo an operation with only a chance of success. This boy is staring at his own mortality right in the face, so he decides he may as well try to enjoy the time he has and help those who he can. This explains the weirdly morbid turn one of his conversations with Arrietty goes. However, unfortunately, he isn’t quite that interesting to watch while on his own, as he’s very quiet and soft-spoken, in comparison to the animated Borrower family or the industrious Hara. The scenes and moments where he’s interacting with Arrietty are genuinely fun though.
And overall this movie is a genuinely fun time. I’m drawn in on concept alone, and – although it has the pacing of a relaxed afternoon walk, allowing us to truly breath in this world at times – the plot and its turns are engaging and keeps me interested in how events will unfold from here.
The big question Arrietty ends up facing is, how do you put a lid back on a secret (like, you and your family’s entire existence) after very openly and clearly making yourself known to a human? Because now that human is going to start acting a bit funny too, and then other people will catch on, it’s going to be a big whole thing… how do we balance the safety of our tiny little Borrower family and this newly-made friendship with a surprisingly nice human? It’s an interesting little story and situation, and each of the characters act realistically, with their own best intentions and putting their priorities first. You just want everything to be okay for everyone, but the further this plot goes, the more you realize something around here needs to change. It’s is an entertaining piece of animation, and it ever so gently touches my emotions as it goes on.
However, I also can’t help but feel that this film does feel like it’s missing… something. There’s no shocking twists and a savvy viewer will know how it ends before you even reach the halfway point. There’s no edge-of-the-seat action or drama. But I don’t think that’s the missing thing that bothers me so much. While the relaxed pace is great, it combined with the 1.5 hour runtime results in each scene needing to do something to advance the plot or tie into something later in the movie. Us being able to “breath in the world”, like I mentioned, only occurs at the times that characters are doing mundane things and not reacting to the events unfolding around them. The sequence of Arrietty going on a borrowing mission with her dad was great, and I wish we had more of that, to be honest. Once the plot gets going, there’s no stopping or detours. While one could say this film is “unwaveringly focused” and “has no filler”, it would’ve been nice to have more time seeing these characters just being themselves. And ultimately, Shawn and Arrietty only have 3 proper conversations with each other throughout the whole film; surprisingly few (and with no other conversations implied) for two characters whom we’re supposed to believe have developed some unspoken bond during the course of this story.
I do wonder sometimes if Studio Ghibli’s writers try to impart lessons onto us viewers as we watch their films. Princess Mononoke certainly seems to have a lesson to take away from it, but I’m not sure if Secret World of Arrietty is supposed to teach you something. There could definitely be lessons to infer from it, like sometimes a risk is worth it as you can end up with a dependable friend, but I wonder what the writers intended while crafting this journey.
Either way, I’m glad this was a journey I embarked on.
Art, Animation, and Audio
A big part of Studio Ghibli’s films’ capabilities to take us on journeys comes from how gosh darn pretty so many of their scenes look, and this film is definitely no exception. The bright greens of the grass and gardens, the more subdued, realistic yet still enticing colors of the interior of the houses (both the humans’ and the Borrowers’) – combined with the amount of clutter and detail that added to so much of the interior backgrounds – this is a world that I wish I could just jump into and experience with my own eyes and senses. Ghibli is great at eliciting such a desire.
But of course, another big part of any animated film is… the animation. And Studio Ghibli, at that time, was probably only beaten by Kyoto Animation in respect to adding expressiveness to their characters. Shawn is animated decently (although he expresses more through body posture and movement than his face), Homily is even more expressive and dynamic, and with Arrietty, you can tell every thought going through her head with how expressive her face is. However, the one who takes the cake for facial expression and contortion is definitely Hara, although the cat Niya is also a top contender.
As far as the character design of the humans go, it’s kind of a bit plain. Shawn in particular doesn’t have that distinct or unique a design. But I suppose the idea is that they’re supposed to look a bit plain. Hara’s design is pretty good though, with a face good for molding the afore-mentioned expressiveness onto. On comparison, the Borrowers are way more memorable. Arrietty’s character design is simplistic, but pretty, with the distinctive wavy, red hair. It’s a decent design, and she looks even better with her signature red dress. But my favorite design is Homily’s, with her wavy hair, the slight wrinkles on her face, and the yellow apron on purple dress… it’s distinct and memorable, I love it.
The sound design for this movie is interesting, during the scenes and moments where we’re following these tiny people around a much larger world that humans have made for themselves. Arrietty and her dad travel into a bedroom, and the ticking of a clock sounds so loud, due to the fact that this clock is really probably 5 times the size of Arrietty herself. It echoes, tick tock tick tock, throughout the entire scene, and just sells the feeling of a small person in a big world. There’s other moments like this throughout the movie as well, like the footstep sounds of rats and insects, but there’s also a few choices that were… amusing.
This could be a bit nitpicky, but the scene where Arrietty’s dad shows her the kitchen for the first time, she looks around and the screen flashes through a few shots of various parts of the kitchen (the sink, some plates, the stove, etc.) while sound effects related to those things played (water running, silverware and plates clattering, something simmering in a pan, etc.) It probably helped fill the soundscape of the scene and quickly establish familiarity for a viewer, but it felt a bit strange to me to have these sounds present while presenting a quiet kitchen at nighttime. I might’ve more preferred an appropriate piece of soundtrack to play instead, something a bit mellow and subdued, but filled with wonder.
However, background music isn’t really used a lot for Secret World of Arrietty. It’s certainly present in various establishing shots and shots where there isn’t dialogue and it’s just a character doing some stuff (like walking from one place to another), but a lot of this film’s audio scape is filled with the sounds of the world around the characters instead. When there is music, it’s primarily piano, with some stringed instruments brought in for good measure (and rarely, some woodwinds). It’s very whimsical and a bit folky, reminding me a bit of traditional Celtic music, I like it!
There’s also two songs with lyrics in them as well: “Neglected Garden” played at two points in the beginning of the film, and “Arrietty’s Song” played at the end; these can probably be seen as the opening and ending themes, if we needed to force them into that sort of categorization. Neglected Garden, which is sung in English no matter the dub language, has lyrics that doesn’t immediately seen relevant to me, but perhaps I’m thinking about them too literally; either way, it is a nice song. Arrietty’s Song is also really pretty and nice, and apparently Cecile Corbel, the composer of the film’s soundtrack, sang this song in 6 different languages for various international releases.
In Disney’s North American release, they also added one more song onto the credits: the song “Summertime” sung by Bridgit Mendler (the American voice of Arrietty). It’s… not a bad song, per say, but its 2010s pop sound is a rather jarring genre switch, and the lyrics are a bit more generic and more romance-leaning.
I suppose that’s a good enough point to segue into discussing Disney’s release as a whole, and the various dubs. The English dub Disney produced is actually pretty decent, with Bridgit Mendler doing a fine job as Arrietty and Carol Burnett as Hara. However, David Henrie’s performance of Shawn left a bit to be desired – he sounded kind of bored. I’ll chalk that up to voice direction though, as I figured they were trying to have him go for “sick, low-energy kid”; I also wish the voice directors gave Hara’s portrayal some more subtlety, like in the Japanese version. There were some kinda big names in the English cast, like Carol Burnett, but also Amy Poehler (who knocked it out of the park as Homily!) and Will Arnett playing the father Pod, doing a better job than his Japanese counterpart. Disney’s dub came out 1.5 years after the film debuted in Japan – the film hit Japanese cinemas in July 2010 and American ones in early 2012. The dub stays pretty faithful to the original script, but there are some differences that left me a bit confused as a viewer, confusions that cleared up when I rewatched the film in Japanese with subtitles. Disney’s dub also adds a small post-credits monologue by Shawn that is totally not present in the original release; I guess they wanted even more of a resolution.
There is also one other English dub though, that came out in between the Japanese release and Disney’s dub. Released in British theaters in late 2011 and then out on DVD in 2012 while the film hit theaters in the US, Studio Canal did their own dub for the UK audience. I don’t really have an easy way to hear this dub of the film though, excepting through some clips on YouTube… it sounds like Tom Holland does a pretty good job as Shawn/Sho though (yes, that Tom Holland). There’s some other relatively big names like Olivia Colman and Mark Strong as well; overall, the UK dub sounds pretty decent from what I’ve heard, although I wonder if the sound mixing is a bit off or if it’s the low-quality YouTube clips I found…
Circling back to the Japanese dub, it’s alright. Kind of difficult for me to judge a bit fairly given I’ve always grown up with Disney’s dub, but I finished the rewatch feeling Mirai Shida did an okay job as Arrietty and Ryunosuke Kamiki’s performance of Shawn/Sho was… at least better than the English version. I’ll also call out Kirin Kiki who played Hara/Haru (and kinda looks like her too!) and Shinobu Otake, who was also amazing as Homily. I think she’s my favorite character! Anyway, Disney’s dub is actually not a bad way to go to experience the film, for us in the United States.
Although Disney no longer holds the distribution rights to the Studio Ghibli films in the US, G Kids’ re-release of the Blu-Ray and posting of the film on HBO Max still maintains the Disney dub (common practice with anime changing licensors), and you also have the original Japanese version available on both mediums as well, in case you want that. (Let’s hope it doesn’t get kicked off HBO Max…)
Final Remarks / TL;DR
The Secret World of Arrietty is another example of Studio Ghibli doing what they do best: whisking you away on a journey within a different setting and experience. The concept of “Borrowers” had me hooked from the beginning, and while the film could’ve done more to show the characters just living and being themselves, the relaxed pace and engaging story makes this a fun watch the whole way through.
For some people and groups, Studio Ghibli and their films is a sizeable part of their childhood and experience growing up. I didn’t really have that as a kid; for me, this was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw, and I was about halfway through high school when this came out. I have a decent appreciation of this film as a result, maybe more than others as I don’t hear this one talked about as much as Ghibli’s older classics. Either way, whether you grew up on Ghibli or you didn’t, I don’t think this is a film to skip over. Especially if you want to spend an evening with something not too intense but still enthralling.
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ Homily, great execution of “Borrowers” concept, Ghibli’s art and animation
— bit too focused on the plot, Shawn is the weakest link , Arrietty is a bit too foolhardy (although that isn’t always bad)