If a month ago if you had asked me what Studio Ghibli was, I could only have given you a very vague answer. But so many people insisted I see “Spirited Away” a film made by Studio Ghibli, a few weeks ago I decided to watch it, and awaited the masterpiece everyone said it would be. I was somewhat disappointed. The way everyone had made it sound to me up till that point was that Spirited Away was a cinematic masterpiece, and while yes it was very good, it didn’t blow me away like it apparently did to so many others.
The story was something we’ve seen a thousand times before, girl gets trapped in a magical land and needs to find a way out. The two main characters weren’t all that interesting, but not terrible by any means. The overall story was very unoriginal, and even the final conflict I saw coming a mile away. But my biggest problem with it was the pacing. The story seems to drag itself out to extraordinary lengths, but it didn’t bother me for the most part because of the animation. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) The only part about the pacing I didn’t like was the ending. All the plot threads were tied up in rapid succession in the last 20 minutes like a Seamstress who realized her costumer would be here in 5 minutes time. Oh; but the animation, and MY GOD THE ANIMATION.
The animation depth and quality kept me enthralled throughout the entire three-hour romp. The character models where lackluster, but that just made the background scenery look all the more amazing by comparison. For a film released in 2001, the animation style and design still rival average animation quality to be found in an average show, some eleven years later. That’s an eternity in animation years, but it still looks good as new, and in some parts even better.
I say all this to give the following review context in that I did not see this film for the plot, story or characters. If I had, I would have been disappointed. I saw this film because I wanted to see what kind of animation Studio Ghibli could make eleven years after the fact. That being said, let’s begin.
Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), a tiny, but tenacious 14-year-old, lives with her parents in the recesses of a suburban garden home, unbeknownst to the homeowner and her housekeeper. Like all little people, Arrietty remains hidden from view, except during occasional covert ventures beyond the floorboards to “borrow” scrap supplies like sugar cubes from her human hosts. But when 12-year-old Shawn (David Henrie), a human boy who comes to stay in the home, discovers his mysterious housemate one evening, a secret friendship blossoms. If discovered, their relationship could drive Arrietty’s family from the home and straight into danger.
So considering the overlong marriage proposal to Spirited Away’s animation above, I figure the first thing I should talk about is the animation. And speaking of the paragraph above, I want you to re-read that three of four times, and then multiply all those compliments in your head while occasionally stopping to look at some famous Renaissance artwork, and you have a fairly accurate impression of my thoughts on The Secret World Of Arrietty’s artwork.
For the second time in a month Studio Ghibli’s animation has blown me away and left me speechless. Once again the character models are very bland, but also once again it only helps to improve the already exceptional oil pastel themed backgrounds. However I think it speaks volumes that this films animation is so much better than Spirited Away’s, not only because it’s about a decade old, but rather that while Spirited Away took us to an amazing world filed with very strange creatures and imagery, and this film is able to capture the same awe and amazement even though it takes place in what could be your or my own house.
But one of the things that stood out the most for me in this, was not only the animation, but the sound effects. Now sound effects in anime is something I’ve never really touched on before, but only because it’s such a small part of everyday animation. It’s like characters blinking. You would notice if it wasn’t there, and you would notice if they did it too much, but it just fades into the background if it’s “just right”. And the reason the sound effects stood out to me is that there are incredibly loud, but not in a bad way. The sound effects are only loud when we view the world from the perspective of Arrietty, and it is amazingly immersive. The enhanced sounds of a clock ticking or grass blowing, or even clothes’ ruffling about as the humans move about in them, in a way that Dolby Digital Surround Sound makes a joy to experience.
However there was a slight disappointment of mine regarding the animation and the world the characters live in. Coming into this movie, I expected the world of the Borrowers to be made completely out of very small things we don’t think about going missing, like pens, water bottles, or my left sock that always disappears in the dryer. And while there is a bit of that, things like the borrower’s house just look like a minuscule version of our own, made out of wood and metal. And it’s sad for me because this is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about! The kings of making the tiniest details looking amazing. Just imagine the kinds of fun their animation team could have had animating that kind of world for the Borrowers!
And really is there any point in going further? If your going to see this film it will be for the animation, but not wishing to sacrifice my artistic integrity I shall continue, but it will be mostly complaints from here on out.
First of all the two main characters, Shawn and Arrietty. Arrietty is a good character with a sense of emotional weight and depth behind her, and thus has no place in my complaints section. Shawn however, is a completely different kettle of fish.
You know how most anime these days start off with the main character saying something along the lines of “Hello my name is ______ and I’m just a normal everyday person living a normal life.” that are guaranteed to have a completely abnormal life by the end of the first episode? Well The Secret World Of Arrietty got that first part down, but forgot to put the second part into the movie, in favor of extending the first part throughout the entire flick. Shawn is quite possibly the most boring and uninteresting character I’ve ever seen in an anime. He has no defining characteristics, no memorable character model, and is voice by that one guy who seems to voice every English anime protagonist, but you never take the time to look up his name. You know, that guy? But I don’t mind so much because he is almost always next to Arrietty, which is much like a colorful bowl of fruit sitting next to a black and white spreadsheet document.
Also Shawn act’s nothing like a little boy. This came to ahead in one particular unbearably preachy scene in which Shawn says (and I’m quoting directly from the movie here) “No Arrietty, my heart is strong now, because you’re in it.” It was around this point I was looking for sharp objects to stab myself with. But luckily that was the only part of the movie that made me cringe with embarrassment, and that leads me onto my next topic, Fun For Kids vs. Fun For The While Family.
Spirited Away, despite all its flaws, was without question a Fun For The Whole Family film. Looking back on it, I could have very easily seen my entire family watching, and enjoying that film. (And keep in mind my family think anime is pornography wrapped up in black tar heroin you have to pay 40 bucks for.) However I think The Secret World Of Arrietty had a much more Fun For Kids story line going on. I enjoyed it and I’m 15, and there was only that one really sappy line mentioned above that I thought was blatantly for kids, but The Secret World Of Arrietty definitely lacked in story lines and characters adults would enjoy. Fans of Studio Ghibli’s past work will enjoy it, but I think most people going in there were just there because of their kids. This is best explained by describing my experience when the Studio Ghibli logo flashed on the screen at the start of the movie. One person said “Heck ya, Studio Ghibli!” and another said “What’s with the giant bunny?”.
The story is (in Studio Ghibli fashion) just a framing device for the animation, and it shows. You really can’t get any more simple than “two people from different world’s develop a relationship, but are torn apart by their family’s” now can you? But for a story literary as old as time itself, it’s told well enough, with no new surprising twists or turns being brought to the table.
All and all though, I enjoyed The Secret World Of Arrietty, or rather I was hypnotized by its animation for an hour and thirty minutes, but the animation itself is well worth the price of admission, the popcorn, and the soda. But the running time brings me to my final point.
Remember how I said there was something ”iffy” about Spirited Away’s pacing? Well multiply that by 1000 for The Secret World Of Arrietty. Studio Ghibli has always been huge on In medias res, and Studio Ghibli films are really more suited to two or three-hour movies rather than an hour and thirty minutes. The Secret World Of Arrietty is a film that really feels like it just stopped 30 minutes before it was supposed to. I mean, throughout the movie you have the intro, the build up, the rising action, and just when it get’s to what should be the climax, it just ends. The ending is rather bitter-sweet, and not that I can’t handle bitter-sweet endings, but this is a tried and true kind of plot, and if your going to use it you should at least stick with it until the end. It really feels like the movie ran out of money at the final point and just decided to cut out half way through resol