Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
(2012, G, 94 min)

The Secret World of Arrietty is a simple story filled with detail, and it’s the details that make it special. It’s from Studio Ghibli, the company headed by famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and though this film is not by Miyazaki his influence is apparent.

Especially effective are the film’s use of sound and visual design. Based on the children’s fantasy novel The Borrowers, it tells the story of a family of miniature people living in the walls of a country house and living off of items they borrow from the human family that lives there. A great early scene follows Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) and her father Pod (Will Arnett) as they venture through the house to retrieve a single cube of sugar and a single sheet of tissue paper, and all throughout I was immersed in the scale of the small characters; insignificant details to the human eye and ear take on greater grandeur as seen and heard by the Borrowers: the movement of insects; the sound of adhesive tape as it aids Pod in his ascent up the leg of a table; the weight of a pin, which to Arrietty and her father is more like a sword.

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes the entire film an orchestra of sights and sounds: painterly vistas, natural landscapes, intricate interiors, right down to the sounds of rain and the rustling of leaves in the wind. I felt every bit a part of this world and relished such minor observations as the viscosity of water, which is much denser and forms thick, heavy droplets from the Borrowers’ point of view.

The story is surprisingly moving. To this country house comes Shawn (David Henrie), whose busy parents have banished him there to convalesce before a surgery intended to repair a heart defect. He has developed a fatalistic worldview, but the screenplay is subtle and concise and does not cross over into mawkishness; a scene where Shawn talks about mortality is surprisingly direct, and that makes it especially poignant.

I was reminded, perhaps surprisingly, of Pan’s Labyrinth, which was also about a lonely child who finds comfort in a secret world, though the tones of the two films couldn’t be more different. If only Labyrinth’s sad heroine could have stumbled out of her world and into this one.