The Secret World of Arrietty (released in the US on February 17th), the latest from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, captivated me completely, and has become one of my favorite of the many children’s book adaptations to appear in recent years.
This film is one of the most lushly beautiful and intricately rendered animated films I have ever seen. Each scene is saturated with color and creatively imagined details of what the whimsical world of a borrower might look like. The beauty of the natural world outside is meditatively lingered upon in many scenes as Arrietty explores the sun-dappled details of leaves and pebbles and water droplets. The human world, too, is seen in a whole new light: in one instance the kitchen looms like a canyon before Arrietty on her first foray into borrowing.
The sound design adds an unexpectedly rich dimension to the visual elements of the film. Minute noises are amplified in a way that imaginatively captures what the aural experience is like for little ears. The ticking of a clock, the hum of a refrigerator, or the night noises that drift in through an open window accost the listener in a way that they never may have before. Cécile Corbel’s surprising and delightful soundtrack adds yet another layer of intricacy to the film as it coordinates with the detailed sound design.
But how does it compare to the book?
Not following Mary Norton’s classic as closely as the 1992 TV version or diverging as much as the (still quirky and fun) 1997 version, The Secret World of Arrietty strikes a wonderful balance that maintains the heart of the original story while reimagining and thematically expanding upon the original 1952 book. The story is gracefully transposed into the present day, to a modern, subtly Japanese country house.
Arrietty and Homily Clock remain much as they appear in the book, but in the new film, Arrietty’s father has a wonderfully quiet, fatherly gravitas that differs from his slightly more garrulous counterpart in the book. The boy’s character in Arrietty, too, differs and expands upon his character in the book. The Boy, Shawn, is a bit older and wiser than the nine-year-old character in the book. The film emphasizes and further develops the sickness that was only briefly mentioned in the book by making Shawn the lonely only child of busy parents, sent to the country to rest before he has a serious heart surgery. Shawn’s storyline adds a nuanced theme of mortality and loneliness that beautifully complements the scintillating delight for life and celebration of family closeness on Arrietty’s side of the story. His relationship with Arrietty comments upon the bittersweet but lasting joy of transient friendships.
This film in many ways transcends its subject matter. Through both the visual and aural elements, I was deliciously reminded of how fresh and enthralling the world was when I was discovering it for the first time as a child. Each scene is imbued with a childlike sense of wonder and discovery that speaks to the child in all of us. Arrietty is enchanting whether one has read the book or not, but I do hope that such a lovely adaptation will lead many (children and grown-ups alike) to discover—or rediscover—the beloved series.