Considering the eccentric, almost psychedelic fantasy worlds created in Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s tales, a story of tiny people living beneath the floorboards of a house seems almost normal.
The Secret World of Arrietty, from Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, also is a pleasant antidote to the siege mentality of so many Hollywood cartoons, whose makers aim to occupy every instant of the audience’s attention with an assault of noise and images.
Slow, stately, gentle and meditative, Arrietty nevertheless is a marvel of image and color. Already a hit in Japan, the film has undergone the typically classy English-language transformation that Disney renders to Studio Ghibli’s films, among them Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning Spirited Away.
What U.S. audiences get is a hybrid, the grandly fluid picture-book imagery of first-time feature director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a veteran Studio Ghibli animator, merged with an English-language rendering of Miyazaki’s screenplay, Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom directing a Hollywood voice cast that includes Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett.
Previously adapted in the 1997 live-action slapstick comedy The Borrowers, Norton’s stories follow the adventures of a family of teeny people who live off things scavenged from nature or from the oversized human world that’s unaware of the existence of this miniature race.
Spirited 14-year-old Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler, star of Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie) lives with her mom and dad (real-life couple Poehler and Arnett) and is about to join in on her first borrowing expedition to fetch back supplies from the “human beans” living upstairs.
Yet Arrietty violates the rules — she’s seen by Shawn (David Henrie of Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place), a sickly youth who has come to stay in the country with his aunt. What could turn into boy-meets-girl, boy-squashes-girl-like-a-bug instead becomes a sweet, chaste, sort-of first love story. Arrietty sheds her inbred borrower’s fear of humans, and Shawn proves a tender soul who understands the fragile existence of his small friend and her kind, doing what he can to help.
The filmmakers inject a bit of tension and some laughs through busybody housekeeper Haru (voiced with joyful, gradually increasing lunacy by Burnett), who sets out to capture the borrowers for her own mad purposes.
Mendler plays the title role with vivacity and a spirit of wonder, while Poehler manages nice laughs with her squawky, frantic vocals. Henrie and Arnett, on the other hand, are vocal rocks, solid but impassive, inexpressive. Arnett applies the same deadpan voice he uses to great comic result in live-action roles, but the effect falls flat without his own almost-smirking poker face to go along.
The borrowers find delightful ways to make essential tools out of found objects we take for granted — a leaf as an umbrella, nails to create stairs or staples to build ladders, strips of duct tape to help scale walls. The wonder the film reveals in the mundane is what makes The Secret World of Arrietty such a fantastic place to visit.
Voices: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett.
Directors: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gary Rydstrom.
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Karey Kirkpatrick. Based on the novel “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton.
Producer: Toshio Suzuki.
A Walt Disney studios release. Running time: 94 minutes. No objectionable material. Opens Friday Feb. 17 at area theaters.