The Secret World of Arietty: Floating with the Borrowers (Movie Notes)

27 Feb

Countless people have rhapsodized about the joy of movie going. One of my favorites quips is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, “For me cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”

In that spirit, I was enchanted to see the (formerly known as) Kodak Theater dressed up as a classic movie palace, complete with “cigarette” girls (serving popcorn) for last night’s 84th Academy Awards ceremony. The icing on the cake was made by 5 awards each going to The Artist and Hugo, two films which celebrate the history, artistry, legacy, and magic of the movies.

I try to find each film’s individual meaning, the message it conveys to me or what it says about the culture in which it was produced. I ask my students, “If a movie projects in an empty theater, does it have meaning?” For me, the answer is a resounding “no.”

I also ask them if we can find that a movie is “good” even if we don’t particularly care for it for one reason or another. Their answer is generally “yes” as they can find great cinematography in the service of a mediocre story or a great story misserved by underwhelming acting.  I’m not so clear on that question.

I don’t go in for overarching statements like “movies should transport you,” or “the book (movie) is always better than the movie (book),” or “animation is just for kids.”  As the Academy Awards show every year, the essence of any film is nuanced and layered.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d kick off Culture Bean’s movie discussions with a few words about The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi).

The previews for Arrietty enchanted me.  I loved the fantasy of miniature people living inside a home’s walls, making their own home, borrowing only what they need to survive.  The expressive round eyes of the main characters stuck with me from that preview until our family outing this weekend.

Photo Courtesy of Disney

Arrietty  tells the story of the Clock family, 4-inch tall people who live inside the walls of a suburban home.  Small enough to hide under a leaf as they traverse the yard for the rare trip outdoors, they fend for themselves by “borrowing” from the Beans (regular-sized human beings) only what they need. They live in fear of being detected, and worry that they may be the only Borrowers left on earth.  When a new Bean, a young boy named Shawn, comes to the house, Arrietty is intrigued. Her parents, Homily and Pod,worry that her curiosity (and his) will cause devastation.

Shawn  is a lonely, sickly boy who needs a friend. His divorcing parents have sent him to his aunt in the country for care and relaxation before heart surgery. Aunt Jessica seems reserved and detached, though caring. Her housekeeper, Hara, is a scheming busy-body. Both have heard tell of the small people who live in the walls. Jessica’s father built a dollhouse for them hoping they’d appear. She and Shawn’s mother had romantic notions about the miniature people and she now thinks that perhaps Shawn’s mother won’t come back to their childhood home because it was a place where “so many dreams didn’t come true.”  Hara, voiced by the incomparable Carol Burnett, only wants to capture a mini-person so she can prove that they exist and that she’s not crazy. {By the way, she’s nuts!]

Arrietty is a preteen in search of adventure and human contact. She is spirited, brave, and thoughtful. Her mother, Homily, is hysterically (in both senses, perfectly played by Amy Poehler) terrified of Beans and her father, Pod, is a man of few words. When she realizes that Shawn has seen her, she knows that she has changed her family’s life forever. She will eventually change Shawn’s life as well.

As rendered by Studio Ghibli, The Secret of Arrietty is a stunning visual treat. The Japanese approach to animation conveys a calm serenity. The gardens combine the colors of Monet’s Giverny and the subtlety of Japanese Ukiyo-e painting and woodblock prints. Like Ukiyo-e, the film conveys the impermanence of our reality, the fleeting nature of beauty. Most often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e art isolates a moment in time, drawing it out for our attention, entertainment, and consideration. Arrietty‘s “floating world” is Aunt Jessica’s home and garden during one summer week. For Arrietty, that world is inhabited by predators–from Beans to Mina that cat to hungry birds, crickets, and rats. She hides under leaves, tosses a dung beetle in her palm, and is followed by a lucky ladybug. For Shawn, it is a world where he is alone with Mina the cat who is at first dismissive of him; Hara, who urges him to rest; and a garden or bed in which to read. Discovering that Arrietty is real gives him, literally, something to live for. The animation does not minutely recreate reality as we’ve come to expect from Pixar and others. Rather, it slows us down, pulls us into the image, and causes us to consider each frame as a painting.

This sense of contemplation is aided by the calm rhythm of the editing and sound. While our pulse quickens when something threatens a Borrower (no spoilers here), both the music and the editing maintain a steady beat meant to lessen our excitement, much as Shawn must be kept calm prior to his surgery.

The Secret World of Arrietty has so much to recommend it. And as one of my favorite film reviewers, Bob Mondello, has eloquently written about it, I want to talk about it more as a parent than a critic.

In a world where children’s films show role models that I don’t necessarily approve for Culture Sprout (think of nearly any Disney Princess–no matter how spunky she is, the goal is to end up with the guy, married and “happily ever after”); or missing parents replaced by evil steps (even the kind who turn good like Gru); or car chases, violence, and trash-talking (Toy Story and Cars, I do love you, really!), The Secret World of Arrietty is a refreshing coming-of-age tale about two children who, for very different reasons, are forced to recognize their own mortality and who find in each other renewed compassion and empathy. It is a story that sparks the imagination rather than directing it. And, it leaves behind a sense of joy and peace.

When Shawn asks Arrietty if she is afraid that she and her family are the only Borrowers and that they might soon be extinct, she is amazed at his prescience. She doesn’t say so, of course. It is evident in her face, in the shot-reverse shot sequence that grows increasingly intimate between the two of them, and in the way the audience draws its breath. He speaks of death e corrects himself to say that it is he who might die soon, talking about his upcoming heart surgery, and his lack of faith that he will survive. These are heady thoughts for a kid to manage. And, yet, I was thrilled to hear them voiced because they are thoughts that kids have, about themselves and others. And, it’s not often that my kid, a heart patient, gets to see herself on-screen.

In the end (spoiler here, sorry), we learn that while Arrietty and her family do move away, that she begins a friendship with a more appropriate playmate (a Borrower), and that Shawn survives to visit the house another summer, at least. They have entered each other’s hearts and are each the better and braver because of it. This is the stuff of lasting friendships–the impact we have on each other’s lives even if our moments together are fleeting.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a lovely floating world in the sea of (really fun) loud, fast, crazy kids’ movies. It’s a celebration of animation, of film, and of friendship, and of children’s books, much as the Academy Awards were last night. I wonder, as does Bob Mondello, if its quiet meditiative nature will appeal to U.S. children. But I take heart in the fact that it’s been kicking around the world since 2009, translated from the Japanese by the British, the French, and now by Disney.

I’ve somehow missed Mary Norton’s children’s book, The Borrowers, from which the film was adapted. I’m on my way to the library right now!


3 Responses to “The Secret World of Arietty: Floating with the Borrowers (Movie Notes)”

  1. Brandon Isaacson (@BrandonIsaacson) February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I only read the beginning (haven’t seen Arietty yet, want to go into it mostly blind)…

    “I try to find each film’s individual meaning, the message it conveys to me or what it says about the culture in which it was produced.”

    I used to feel this way about film but I’ve changed a lot since I went to Sundance in January 2010. Now when I watch films I don’t want to force them into having meaning, sometimes they’re just a portrait of an interesting person/place/situation. I don’t want to force a meaning on the film until a meaning manifests itself in my heart or mind. For example, Martha Marcy May Marlene is very very high on my list for 2011 (currently #3), but I can’t really conjure a satisfying “meaning” “message” or “cultural statement” (not ascribing these words to your statement, just taking your comments on film and running with my own thoughts). The reason I’m so taken by the film is how successfully it discusses its main character honestly and complexly through using images, and sounds (or lack of).

    I guess what I’m getting at is it is common to view film as a way to communicate a message. I don’t agree with the way this idea is forced on all films. At its core, I think film is an amazing form of communication. It can absolutely make a point about something, but I don’t think is has to. Sometimes film can be used as a portrait of a person, a situation (Martha Marcy) a culture (The Tree of Life), etc.

  2. Culture Bean February 28, 2012 at 9:55 am #


    Thanks for being my first commenter (commentator?)!

    I don’t disagree with you at all. I think, rather, that that my use of the terms “meaning,” or “message” could be clarified. As we discussed in class, in my opinion a film projected in an empty room does not make meaning simply because it is not received. It goes beyond McCluhanism, though the medium is definitely part of the message.

    For any media text to create a complete message loop, someone has to receive the “message.” For instance, Culture Bean didn’t send a message until you (and my husband!) read it. You are completing the messge loop by commenting and starting a conversation.

    In fact, I would argue that discussing (or “portraying”?) a “main character honestly and complexly” IS making meaning. The film moved you. And, you can identify why and how. That’s meaning and message enough for me.


  1. Princess Mononoke (Movie Notes) « Culture Bean - July 29, 2012

    […] Sprout is a big fan of Ponyo (2008*) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And, of course, we loved The Secret World of Arietty (2010). Princess Mononoke (Photo credit: […]

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