Standing in a museum looking at a Monet always makes me wish I could have been there, standing over his shoulder, seeing the same thing that he was immortalizing on canvas. Watching movies from Studio Ghibli are as close as I will ever come. If you haven't ever seen the mostly hand-painted but completely stunning Japanese animated classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and now The Secret World of Arrietty, this is one of those times where I might sound a little unintentionally condescending when I say treat yourself. No other animation studio, even our beloved Pixar, can quite replicate the magic, wonder and weirdness they create in the Far East.
This story is one that, unlike most of their other pictures, is a remake familiar to American audiences. It's based on the book The Borrowers, about tiny people who live secretly among humans, taking only what they need to survive. Since one cube of sugar lasts them months, and they only need one tissue twice a year, they mostly go unnoticed by their bustling, careless, gigantic housemates. Unfortunately for the tiny Clock family, when their feisty daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) joins her father Pod (Will Arnett) for a nighttime hunting mission, she is spotted by the human boy Shawn (David Henrie). Seeing a Borrower is like crossing paths with Charlize Theron--humans become instantly obsessed. The Borrowers have to get the heck out of there, much to Arrietty and Shawn's chagrin.
Studio Ghibli films usually play out like a surrealist version of real life, where there aren't any mustache-twirling villains, and even the main character can suffer from bad judgment. Although Haru (Carol Burnett), the housekeeper, would give anything to actually prove that there are little people running around under the floorboards, she doesn't want to necessarily hurt anybody. And headstrong Arrietty has a lot of trouble listening to her parents, who keep trying to convince her that humans can be very dangerous, but she can't ignore how kind Shawn seems. Their relationship has the same kind of innocent sweetness of a sandbox romance. Instead of cramming hastily written dialogue down your throat, this is one of those movies that just serenely unfolds and allows you to draw some of your own conclusions about human nature and relationships.
Aside from how darn cute tiny things look next to the even tinier Borrowers, this film was missing the double-take inducing elements of the studio's other films (like mime worms, moving mechanical houses, and goldfish eating ham). That made it a little less fun and memorable than other films, but the standard breathtaking beauty of each frame and attention to detail more than made up for it. It's a wonderful way to introduce a child to a mesmerizing world that has the power to ignite their imagination and shape the way they find beauty in the world, but it's also completely appropriate to watch without a kid, too. Its charm and wonder touches everyone with a pulse.