The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
The Clock family (father Pod, mother Homily and 14-year old daughter Arrietty) are Borrowers; four-inch tall people who live under the floorboards in people's houses and borrow things from the "Beans" (human beings) that they need to survive. Their home is a box inside a pile of breaks in the foundations of an old house with spacious grounds in a suburb of Tokyo. It's a quiet place, but Pod is concerned when a young boy comes to the house to rest before going into hospital for a heart operation. Being seen by Beans is the worst thing that can happen to a Borrower and it usually means having to move house. His worries prove justified when Arrietty goes on her first borrowing expedition and is seen by the boy. Though the boy wants to be friends with the littler Borrower girl, the result is a chain of events that put the Clocks in danger.
Produced by Studio Ghibli, the same production house that created Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the 1952 book The Borrowers by Mary Norton and the love of the filmmakers for the source material definitely shows through.
Before anything else, this is a first-class piece of animation with an attention to detail that is stunning. It isn't often when a cartoon takes such pains to show a changing facial expression in such detail or choreograph the fall of raindrops or the panic of a crow caught in a window screen. It's beautiful to see, though one sometimes wonders if a little too much attention has been taken on a minor detail. The Foley work is almost excruciatingly complete with every motion accompanied by the appropriate sound to the point where even soundless actions like the opening of a hand gets its spot on the soundtrack.
This is also a hard story to screw up so long as the screenwriters and director are smart and stick to the book. The plot here is just right for the material and is a refreshing departure from most modern family films that need some sort of slam-bang climax. Instead, this is much more subdued and gentle even in the most harrowing moments. That being said, it's also a very slow film that moves with a very rhythmic, deliberate pace and there are many spots which should have been speeded up. Also, the story loses something from being shifted from England to Japan. It's rather as if the heart of the story was lost in transit. This is a charming film; beautiful in places and with a bittersweetness that is never cloying. However, what is lost is the whimsy of the original novel. There isn't that sense of cheerfulness and acceptance of this strange world being right next to ours that is utterly normal to those who inhabit it. We can definitely see father Pod using all his resourcefulness to provide for and protect his family. We can't really imagine him setting back with a pipe and telling stories. Homily is just a bundle of nerves and Arrietty, while a courageous character, lacks that spark of English cheerful truculence that made her literary counterpart so endearing. And if anyone smiles, it's always a wan thing.