The Secret World of Arrietty Review

AKA: Arrietty, Kari-gurashi no Arrietty, Arrietty the Borrower
Genre: Fantasy
Year Released: 2010
Distributor: GKIDS
Origin: Japan
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: G
Related Films/Series: The Borrowers, The Borrowers (BBC TV remake), The Return of the Borrowers, The Borrowers (1997 remake), The Borrowers (2011 remake), The Borrowers (upcoming animated TV remake)
For Fans Of: The Littles, Truckers, Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Song of the Sea, Haibane Renmei, Ponyo, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Mirai, Thumbelina, Tangled
Notes:
-The GKIDS version was used for this review when I streamed it on Google Play.

-The US English dub (AKA the Disney dub) was used for this review.

-The characters will be referred to by their Japanese names. Here’s a comparison for those who only saw the US dub:

Sho=Shawn
Sadako Maki=Jessica
Haru=Hara
Fun Facts:
-Arrietty is an anime remake as well as the first animated adaptation of The Borrowers. It’s based on a British book of the same name by Mary Norton who is also responsible for creating The Magic Bed Knob. You might know Disney’s version of that story as Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Also, Ghibli seems to LOVE their British novels since they’ve adapted other works before.

-This is the directorial debut work of now-former Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi as well as one of two Ghibli movies he directed with the other being When Marnie Was There. He’s the same person who would also create Studio Ponoc years after the fact. Yonebayashi interestingly enough was an alternate director for Earthsea should Goro Miyazaki not have directed that movie. Maybe it could’ve been better with this guy?

-The UK dub of Arrietty actually had the cinema debut of Tom Holland playing Sho. That’s right. The current Spider-Man got his start in the movie business by voicing an anime character.

-Disney Fan Bonus: Haru/Hara (must resist obvious FLCL joke!) tells someone that “strange things are happening around here” in the US dub. Intentional Toy Story reference is intentional! Also, three of the actors in that same dub were in Wizards of Waverly Place with Bridgit Mendler, David Hernie, and Moises Arias having roles in that Disney Channel series.

-Arrietty’s father Pod is portrayed in the Japanese version by Tomokazu Miura. He was in House (the Japanese horror/comedy movie), the 64 movie series, and he was the Japanese dub voice of Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles movies. In the British dub, he’s played by Mark Strong. He was Sinestro in Green Lantern, Merlin in the Kingsmen movies, and he’s going to play Boris in the Cruella movie. In the US dub, he’s played by Canadian actor/comedian Will Arnett. This was so bizarre finding out about it because this guy played a very serious role. For those who don’t know him, that’s Lego Movie Batman, BoJack Horseman, and (the first character that comes to my mind) G.O.B. from Arrested Development. G. O. B. playing a dead serious anime character? Come on!

-The soundtrack was composed by Breton-French singer/harpist Cecile Corbel. She is the first non-Japanese musician to score an entire Ghibli film. Corbel was actually a huge fan of Ghibli for years and actually mailed one of her CDs to that studio. Then-top Ghibli executive and producer Toshio Suzuki loved her work enough to sign her up for Arrietty. It was originally a deal for just the theme song, but the wanted more songs until she scored the whole movie. That sounded like a dream come true for Corbel. Not only that, but the Arrietty soundtrack won both the Japan Gold Disc Award for Best Soundtrack as well as Best Music in the Tokyo Anime Awards.

Another filmography is complete for Iridium Eye. That’s two out of three so far as I have now written reviews for the entirety of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s directorial portfolio. While I wasn’t as big a fan of his work compared to the late Isao Takahashi or even Hayao Miyazaki as Ghibli directors are concerned, he still had tons of potential and I liked more of his works than not. For those who haven’t read my reviews of his other works, here’s a quick recap. His final Ghibli film When Marnie Was There is worth seeing in my eyes and one of the better new-school movies from the acclaimed studio. I’ve also reviewed Yonebayashi’s Ponoc-era works since he started that studio. Mary and the Witch’s Flower had great animation, but he piggybacked WAY too much on Ghibli’s legacy and I thought the final product was average. Modest Heroes was an improvement even though it was an anthology film. Much like reviewing the original Ghost In the Shell movie, there’s a case of me going back to the beginning.

Is Yonebayashi’s debut work a rookie mistake or the effort of a rookie of the year in hindsight?

The Secret World of Arrietty takes place in the summer at a quaint house in the countryside. A boy named Sho is sent to live with his great aunt Sadako and her maid Haru in this home which also happens to be his mom’s childhood home. He’s struggling with an illness, so he’s sent there by his parents to recover. At the same time, there are a group of miniature-sized people known as Borrowers who live underneath the floorboards of the house. One of them is the fourteen-year-old Borrower girl Arrietty who is briefly spotted by Sho when she was in the garden. The Borrowers have that name because they take small and simple things that regular humans (or “beans” as they’re called) won’t miss such as sugar cubes, pins, pieces of cloth, etc. Arrietty goes on her first borrowing mission with her stern dad Pod as a rite of passage at night, but Sho notices their presence which makes him curious. This isn’t good because the Borrowers had testy and even fatal encounters with humans in the past before, so if humans find out about them living there, then they have to move somewhere else. Haru heard stories about Borrowers potentially living in the house, so she has her own motives to trap them. Arrietty wants to be friends with Sho, but her parents won’t have it due to other Borrowers being missing or dead in similar situations. The family threatens to move while at the same time, they wonder if there are others of their kind outside the house.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen this movie until recently, and when I first heard about it years ago, I thought this was going to be some artsy rip-off of The Littles. While I only saw reruns of the cartoon version (which I wasn’t a fan of to begin with during my childhood), I thought it would be so lame if Ghibli were to steal people’s stories. In my research, I found out that Arrietty was an adaptation of The Borrowers which predates the original Littles book series by fifteen years and the animated series by thirty-one years, so who’s the real rip-off, eh? At least the Borrowers in this movie as well as other adaptations just look like tiny humans instead of having those tails or weird mice-teeth. Spoiler alert: I like The Secret World of Arrietty way more than The Littles. Moving on, now…

Much like whenever I review a Motoko Shinkai flick, it gets boring talking about the animation when it comes to a Ghibli movie because I know it’s going to be good. Arrietty is certainly no exception here. Unlike other 2010s Ghibli movies like When Marnie Was There or From Up on Poppy Hill, there is a sense of wonder and magic to it which really helps. While the setting is realistic, the fact that there are tiny humanoid beings going through parts of a house that are unreachable to a normal human was innovative by itself. Stamps are used as artwork in their house, leaves can make a room look like a huge garden (or jungle according to Homily, Arrietty’s mom), or small animals to a human look like menacing beasts to the perspective of a Borrower. Things actually felt epic despite the tiny and otherwise mundane spaces. Everything was just so colorful and vibrant which made things really feel alive. Despite being over a decade old, the animation could’ve been made yesterday and I wouldn’t have batted an eye with how well things have aged. While this was my first time seeing anything related to The Borrowers, I will say that I was intrigued by what would happen next. It’s not a complex plot, but there were some decent twists and turns. The characters certainly kept me engaged with Arrietty’s curiosity and bravery, Sho’s quiet demeanor while also struggling with a guilt complex, or Haru’s grumpy, yet sly nature were all engaging. I was shocked by the highlights of the dub with Bridgit Mendler really nailing it as the title character, Amy Poehler as the fretting Homily, and Carol Burnett doing a fantastic job as Haru. Okay, Disney. I know you don’t have the rights to Arrietty anymore, but I’ll compliment you on actually trying with the dub with some of the performances. There were some adult themes handled very well like death, terminal illnesses, or even the fridge horror that the Borrowers could be victims of extinction that were handled in a G-rated way which was well done. The biggest highlight for me was the soundtrack by Cecile Corbel. Why is Arrietty not mentioned in the same sentences of anime with high-quality music like anything involving Yoko Kanno, Joe Hisaishi, or Yuki Kajiura? This was phenomenal. The soundtrack uses lots of Celtic vibes with harps, violins, and hammered dulcimers (that instrument seems to be a favorite of Yonebayashi’s movie scores). Parts of it reminded me of The Secret of Kells or some of the tracks from Haibane Renmei, so you know it’s going to be good from a music standpoint. Corbel’s theme and insert songs were just beautiful. Even the US dub secondary ending theme “Summertime” by Mendler was good although not as good as the works of Corbel. I might have to buy the soundtrack for this thing because I was really impressed with the score.

Arrietty could certainly borrow some better facets and correct some shortcomings if you pardon the in-universe puns of this movie let alone The Borrowers. While the Disney dub had some impressive performances, I wasn’t a fan of certain things. The name changes were unnecessary since the original Japanese names weren’t that hard to pronounce anyway and the pest control truck in the third act clearly has Japanese lettering on it. Poehler and Arnett did a good job as Arrietty’s parents which I won’t deny, but it gets harsher in hindsight when you realize they were a married couple then and got divorced just a few years after the American release. I heard it was amicable and nowhere near as problematic as Michael Rapaport and Lili Taylor’s roles in Subway Stories, but that does tarnish some things. I had issues with the Spiller character with how he was portrayed. In the US dub (I’m not sure if he’s like this in the Japanese version or British dub), he only speaks with broken English and grunts while having a weird accent. Am I also the only person who thinks he has some questionable Native American stereotypical overtones with his character design as well as having a more “wild” appearance with the bow and arrow or holding up a cricket leg as potential food for hunting? That rubbed me the wrong way and I’m not even Native American. I also found out that his US dub voice actor Moises Arias was the only nonwhite actor in the dub playing such a character like that (he’s Colombian-American), but that was the least of my worries when I found out after watching this movie that he was photographed shirtless when he was twenty-years-old at the time on a bed next to a then-thirteen-year old Willow Smith. Even though nothing sexual happened according to the DCFS investigation, that was just squicky on so many levels, it was a very poor decision on his part, and just looked wrong. It’s hard to separate the art and artists with me especially since I saw the version with him voicing Spiller. I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more worldbuilding with Borrowers outside of Arrietty’s family. That could’ve been expanded on in the epilogue and it was implied that a lot more were there in the outside world, but it wasn’t explored as much besides the existence of Spiller in his brief scenes.

The Secret World of Arrietty was a worthwhile debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The animation is top-notch as to be expected from Studio Ghibli and offered one of the best, yet overlooked soundtracks in anime history in my opinion. The plot and characterization were great and it was something both children and adults could enjoy. There were some worldbuilding questions and some of the acting choices in the US dub had issues in hindsight though. Arrietty isn’t the best Ghibli movie, but I would still recommend it for anyone interested in animated films in general.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you love Studio Ghibli works.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer more overt fantasy elements.
Subtract 1-3 points if you prefer more adult stories.

Pros:
-Amazing animation
-Majestic soundtrack and sound design
-Nice usage of the worldbuilding in the house as well as handling some adult themes

Cons:
-Spiller’s character design and mannerisms are questionable
-Worldbuilding on the Borrower people could’ve been expanded
-Harsher in hindsight elements with some of the Disney dub cast

Final Score: 8/10 Points

Content Warning: The Secret World of Arrietty got a G rating in America, and I think that makes sense. There’s talk about Borrowers dying, but it’s all offscreen. The animals from the perspective of the Borrowers could frighten small children like a raccoon or the family cat. There’s some violence, but it’s quite tame. Sho is very sickly and is revealed to have a severe heart condition. Besides that, it’s safe for the whole family to watch.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Secret World of Arrietty is property of GKIDS. The DVD cover is from Studio Ghibli and is property of GKIDS and Studio Ghibli.

8 comments

  1. I love the aesthetic of something small exploring worlds designed for beans like us, probably ever since seeing Toy Story as a young boy. Arietty was a great film, but I am surprised there was this much behind-the-scenes drama in regards to the actors. Where do you even find all this trivia man?!

    Great and interesting review as always. Congrats on completing another filmography!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the dynamics and aesthetics of the borrowers as opposed to the beans was handled so well with the mundane looking magical or dangerous at worst from such low heights (yes, I inverted a Postal Service reference). Toy Story is an interesting comparison and one could argue the borrowers were shorter than most of the toys in that movie. That was a great Ghibli work and I didn’t know about the drama with the American dub cast until I did my research.

      It was crazy with how many bigger names were associated with this movie. Sorry if I sounded like a Hollywood gossip column when I mentioned some of those facts. I legitimately didn’t know that Amy Poehler and Will Arnett were a real life couple at one point which explains why their chemistry was very good in the dub even though they divorced a few years later. Then again, Arnett didn’t even sound like the characters I’ve seen him play which threw me off. I wasn’t too familiar with the Disney Channel stars associated with this film although I’ve seen the name Brigit Mendler somewhere a long time ago, but didn’t make the connection. Good question about the trivia. I guess with the bigger names, there was more information available and this goes with other things I’ve reviewed with more notable actors or creators. Also, some sites like IMDb or even Wikipedia certainly help when necessary.

      Thank you so much, Casper! It certainly was an accomplishment with watching and reviewing all of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s movies. Have you seen his other works besides Arrietty?

      Like

    • Thanks, Ashley! That is one beautiful and underrated soundtrack. Come to think about it, I liked the music work in every Yonebayashi work I’ve seen.

      Same here and I hope Studio Ponoc can keep going and make some great films.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review. I agree that it is definitely not the best Ghibli film and I thought your comment on Mary and the Witch’s Flower was spot on: “[the director] piggybacked WAY too much on Ghibli’s legacy”. I believe that this is something very easy to do and appealing, and, I agree, the result could only be average at best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you felt that way. Arrietty was still a good film there. How do you like it compared to Yonebayashi’s other works during his Ghibli and post-Ghibli years?

      I hear you right there with Mary and the Witch’s Flower. That movie did have a ton of potential, but it didn’t strike me as something that went outside of Ghibli’s shadow even down to the opening title slide with Mary looking to the side just like Totoro does in the beginning of Ghibli films.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I prefer his work pre-Arrietty to be honest (or other Ghibli work shall I say). The other way to put it is that I prefer those Ghibli animations where he wasn’t the main director. It is hard to judge him now post-Ghibli and on the basis of only his first film outside the company. It will be interesting to see his future work and how they will compare, though. I also think that if he wanted to establish himself independently like that he should have done it much earlier.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s fine. Yonebayashi is a talented animator, so I hear you right there. I know he didn’t have as many directorial works in his Ghibli days since he only had two during his tenure there (the other being When Marnie Was There which I also enjoyed). Interesting point because with his own studio Ponoc, he just has Mary and the Modest Heroes anthology. Modest Heroes did do a better job having a more unique identity despite some of the flaws in that short film project compared to Mary in my opinion. I would like to see how him and Studio Ponoc will come up with in the near future. There was that Olympic project which could be shown this year after the giant COVID delays. I do hope that he does carve his own identity as a director as well as an animation studio owner instead of just riding those Ghibli coattails.

        Liked by 1 person

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