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Thursday 8 March 2012

Film Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

This probably isn't the first place you'd think to come if you were on the lookout for a good kids' movie, but I just saw a great one I think would resonate even with my jaded, world-weary readership. The Secret World of Arrietty is the latest out of Japan's Studio Ghibli (released in 2010 but only now filtering down to Peterborough), and it's as fine and sensitive a movie as any they've ever made.

Although this one isn't directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, he wrote and planned this piece before handing it on to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has very carefully maintained the spirit of a Studio Ghibli film. If you haven't seen any of those yet, the studio is famous for making beautifully animated movies with a moral complexity unusual for the genre. They seldom feature irredeemably evil villains, the pacing is slow and measured, and the animation is mainly hand-drawn.

All of which was strangely highlighted by my experience before Arrietty even started. Galaxy Cinemas in Peterborough shows good movies at the rate of about one per year; the rest of the time, it shows filthy crap that will imperil your everlasting soul. One time I walked past and counted six superhero movies showing simultaneously. But a Studio Ghibli movie on the big screen is a big deal, so I went with my girlfriend and my dad.

As soon as the previews started, I was embarrassed to have brought everyone to a kids' movie and began to entertain thoughts of apocalypse. The previews were for the kind of movies that only a culture in serious and speedy decline could ever make. In fact, it seemed to be picking up speed with every frame. The ads were spastic, noisy, morally bankrupt, and highly corrosive to the developing mind. The Lorax boasted an environmental message, but I doubted neon unicycle chases and Danny DeVito would raise the consciousness of its viewers. Brave is Pixar Animation Studio's reaction to the criticism their movies lack female protagonists, but the Braveheart references and impetuous I-will-not-marry-him! conceit seemed pretty warmed over. Mirror Mirror sank to lower depths, a kung fu retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves starring Julia Roberts.

Just as I was about to put out my eyes, a little girl in the front row, too young to control her urges, screamed out "This sucks!" She got a huge laugh from the audience, which I interpreted as collective relief. It reminded us that today's children are not ravenous consumers whose appetites can only be briefly sated by this kind of convulsive spectacle. As far as I could tell, that's an idea entertained only by a few insane rich people in Hollywood. Mercifully, The Secret World of Arrietty began.

The Studio Ghibli logo is a two-tone drawing of a forest spirit, in stark contrast to the Disney castle, which is now rendered in 3D with exploding fireworks. The movie's opening shots are of the ordinary natural world, exquisitely framed. A little boy drives with his aunt to the cottage where he will be staying. She asks him to wait in the car while she goes up the drive. The pacing immediately feels far more human.

I'll let you see it for yourself, but suffice to say that the movie exudes a wisdom that few kids' movies have. I like the way it excites the imagination using ordinary household settings. I like the way even when it is moralizing, as when the title character Arrietty and the boy argue, it is clear how their philosophies relate to their life experiences. I think the way it, like nearly all Ghibli films, portrays gender roles is far more genuine than the pseudofeminism pushed by the movies mentioned earlier, because Arrietty's equality is not determined exclusively by the fact she can swordfight and shoot a bow and arrow good as any prince. I think the frugality and resourcefulness displayed by Arrietty's family sends a more persuasive and positive ecological message than a CGI-Seuss extravaganza.

Here's an interesting anecdote: Miyazaki's first film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, was originally released in North America as Warriors of the Wind. The film was heavily edited, excising its environmental message. The main character Nausicaa's name, a reference to Homer's Odyssey, was changed to Princess Zandra. The poster featured several male characters not actually in the film. Studio Ghibli was understandably disgusted, so when Harvey Weinstein suggested cutting Princess Mononoke to make it more marketable to Americans, a producer a sent him a katana with the simple message "no cuts."

If that's story is true, it's one of the greatest bits of movie lore I've heard. Without it, Princess Mononoke might never have survived the trip across the ocean, where it would eventually permeate my subconscious and work its way into every conversation about animation I've ever had. I might never have gone to see the movie I'm writing about now, which I enjoyed almost as much. I realize I haven't really told you what Arrietty is about, but the short answer is its based on the 1952 novel by Mary Norton, about a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards. I've never read the book, but I might now. I'd also gladly watch The Secret World of Arrietty again, and I recommend it to you, too.

Japanese poster
North American Poster

1 comment:

  1. I will never understand how some people (my brother-in-law, for example) do not like 'Totoro' actually makes me angry, and I'm generally the type of guy who allows other people to have opinions.

    Of course, I haven't seen this one about little people living under floorboards. Eventually.