The Secret World of Arrietty has the captivating delicacy of a falling leaf. The movie drifts this way and that, hardly making a sound, mesmerizing us with its flight until settling, gently, on just the right spot on the ground. Like a leaf in the wind, I’d seen its type before – it has a common animation style, it tells a familiar story – yet that took nothing away from its ability to hold me enthralled.
Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Ponyo) is on hand here as screenwriter and producer, but he’s handed the directorial reins to Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Together they’ve taken the Mary Norton children’s novel The Borrowers – about a family of little people who live beneath the house of an ailing young boy – and turned it into a melancholy meditation on friendship, loneliness and the specter, even for children, of death.
There’s a hushed quality to the film that’s truly remarkable, especially given all the banging and clattering that usually accompanies animated features for kids. Instead of wringing tension from frantic action sequences – say, a battle with mice – The Secret World of Arrietty finds more artful ways to keep us in its grip.
The movie opens with 14-year-old Arrietty going on her first “borrowing trip” with her father. As she enters the house above, the movie shifts its perspective so that we see this enormous new universe through her eyes. Standing on a kitchen counter, looking out to the table on the other side of the room, Arrietty might as well be at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Later, while climbing the ivy that leads to the house’s roof, Arrietty pauses to take her first look at the garden from above. The wind ruffles slightly, the ivy leaves lilt to one side and we see an Eden of unimaginable richness. (The soft-focus animation throughout has a painterly, impressionistic quality, as if a gentle breeze had wafted across a Monet canvas.)
Arrietty’s world is also artfully evoked through the use of sound. It makes sense that our everyday noises would be deafening to someone so small, and so the silence of her nighttime borrowing trip with her father is broken by the thudding clicks of a clock. Similarly, the crickets outside that lull us to sleep sound to her like roaring beasts.
The Secret World of Arrietty allows us to luxuriate in such details, aural and otherwise. Early on, there is a touch that would be completely arbitrary except that it suggests the leisurely manner with which the film will proceed. After Arrietty walks away from under a bush in the garden, the camera holds on the foliage as a ladybug skitters out onto a leaf. It pauses for a moment, as do we, then opens its wings and quietly zips away. There is no need for that moment to be there – some producers might call it a waste of precious screen seconds – except that it’s perfectly of a piece with what Arrietty means to be: a work of small pleausures, and great art.