Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote, but did not direct, the new Studio Ghibli production "The Secret World of Arrietty," and the film suffers without his golden touch. Anointed director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made a vividly colorful, frequently beautiful movie, but not one that will linger in my memory. 

Arrietty is an adolescent borrower girl. The borrowers are a species of humanoids, a tiny fraction of the size of normal human beings, who live just outside the view of most people in tiny nooks and crannies, emerging rarely to "borrow" only so much sugar, or tissue paper, or other items, as they need to survive. Many sequences show the grave danger the borrowers face on these missions, and there's a certain initial excitement to them.

But the movie, while lovely to look at, too often feels stilted and slow. The characters are often exasperatingly dense. Arrietty's mother spends her life in a tizzy of mortal fear that either a cat, or a crow, or we "beings," will gobble up the family. Her father talks in homilies with all the inflection of Harrison Ford in "Morning Glory" - in which, you'll recall, he sounded like he'd come down with laryngitis (or emphysema). Arrietty herself is the generic I-can-do-it-myself protofeminist of modern kid's movies, boring if you're not in the market for a five-inch role model. And her love interest, the sick human boy Sean, is sappy and has little going for him. Only Carol Burnett as the maid to Sean's aunt injects some humor into the proceedings, a little of that "Tatie Danielle" mischievousness.

It wouldn't be fair to hold "The Secret World of Arrietty" up against Miyazaki's enduring masterwork, the lyrical and dreamlike "Spirited Away." But it's several steps below even something like "Kiki's Delivery Service"; nothing here matches the excitement of that first solo broomstick ride through town. An incongruous rock anthem is played several times during the picture, giving it the feel of a Vegas show even as it appears to aim for a quieter human connection.

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