We are huge Miyazaki fans in our house. There are Totoros everywhere, stuffed catbuses and soot sprites litter the floor, and on my desk (where I am typing this right now!) is a tiny replica of Howl’s Moving Castle, another soot sprite, and a postcard of “Le Voyage de Chihiro.” Our daughter’s first movie – both here at home and in a movie theatre is “My Neighbor Totoro.” (Thank heavens we live in a city where you can find random Miyazaki retrospectives playing at local art houses!)
Back in 2007 I was very lucky to be cast in a small role in Howl’s Moving Castle. To even have this tiny, tiny part in a Miyazaki film is one of the greatest honors ever bestowed on me. It’s safe to say that he is considered a master of animated film. On my kitchen wall hangs a flyer advertising the Japanese version of The Secret World Of Arrietty. When we were in Tokyo visiting the Ghibli Museum in 2010, we grabbed a couple to take home. I’ve been looking at it every day since then. So, yes, you could say that this film has been “highly anticipated” here at Chez Rutherford.
I was invited to a screening of the film over at Disney Studios, and I braved rush hour traffic to the VALLEY to see it! I know, right? I’m a hero.
And this film did not disappoint. What a lovely treat. It’s one of the most beautiful, lush and highly textured films I’ve ever seen. I’m always blown away by the rich background mattes in Miyazaki’s work, but the attention to detail in this film is just beyond belief.
The story is based upon the famous children’s book series, “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. I loved these books. I’ve always been taken with the idea of tiny people just out of sight, living their lives around us – be they Borrowers, Faeries, or Leprechauns. Arrietty is a 14 year old Borrower, and it’s her first time to go “borrowing.” But Borrowers must never be seen by humans, and when an invalid boy named Shawn spots Arrietty, her whole family’s life is thrown into turmoil.
Nature always plays a big role in Studio Ghibli films, but in The Secret World Of Arrietty, nature is the absolute star. Scenes would change, and I would audibly gasp as I took in the loveliness and exquisite attention to detail. It’s the kind of beauty that makes you instinctually place your hand over your heart, lest it fill up with gorgeousness and break. Everything was done with such care – flowers that you could reach up and pluck off the screen, the intricate bits and bobs around the house – both human and Borrower. Each droplet of water sparkled – and as Arrietty’s mother poured her family a cup of tea, or served them soup, you could see the surface tension on the droplets as they pushed out of the tiny kettles and pots. Swoon doesn’t do it justice.
Even the sound design transports you in and out of worlds. You hear the way the world sounds to us humans, and then suddenly you realize that without noticing the transition, you’re listening to the gigantic world as it sounds to a Borrower – the room tone is huge, the clock is suddenly deafening. Outside, the rain has a heavy sound to it, the crows “caw” just the way they do in Japan (I’m always struck by how they actually say, “caw! caw!” in Japan, as opposed to a screech here in the U.S.) You’ll even swear that you can hear the humidity in the air -but maybe it’s just the honeyed sounds of locusts singing about summer.
Lately, I’ve had the soundtrack to Spirited Away on repeat, and so I was looking forward to more music by Joe Hisaishi. But he’s nowhere to be found on this soundtrack. Producer Toshio Suzuki felt that a french artist named Cecile Corbel was the person to write the theme songs for Arrietty and Shawn. The music is lovely – there is the feel of a Scottish ballad to it, and weaves itself well into the film… And then.. well, the movie ends and suddenly there’s another track. It’s called “Summertime,” and it’s performed by Bridgit Mendler, the voice of Arrietty. It’s jarring and makes no sense in relation to the film. To me it felt like someone at Disney said, “We need a hit single! Something the kids nowadays can relate to!” Thankfully, it’s at the very very end of the credits, because WOW is it out of place – it totally has that “tacked on” feeling.
However, the voice acting is not dissonant or jarring at all. Sometimes celebrity voice casting can take you right out of the story. But Amy Pohler and Will Arnett don’t yank you out of your reverie to remind you, “HI I AM AMY POHLER AND I AM SAYING THIS LINE NOW.” Even the very adorable fact that they are married in real life doesn’t have an adverse affect on enjoying the characters. Arnett has an especially tough gig – Arrietty’s father, Pod, is a man of very little words. But Arnett packs a lot in every one of those, “hmms.”
The film is full of quiet moments between so many characters. In many scenes, characters simply look at each other, and it’s all their in their eyes. Mom and Dad, Arrietty & Shawn, Arrietty and the Cat – Arrietty even has a lovely quiet moment with a roly poly!
Within these quiet moments, nature remains the absolute star of the picture. There’s always breathing space within the story for us to watch a ladybug fly away, glimpse a fish swimming in the water, or ants eat some leftover sugar.
And I carried the hushed tone with me. Since it was an evening screening, the drive home offered me the rare absence of my tiny, adorable chatterbox in the back seat. I planned to use the time to catch up on the people I owed phone calls to. You know, fire up the bluetooth, and have some adult conversations. But instead, I found that I was just brimming with the feeling of the film and wanted to stay in that lush, quiet space. I drove in absolute silence all the way home, my head full of sleepy summers, magic, and plans to get started on building faerie gardens in my backyard.