The new anime version of The Borrowers, titled The Secret World of Arrietty by screenwriter and "supervisor" Hayao Miyazaki, has the fascination with household "spirits," the same lovely color palette and attention to detail for which his films are famous.
But Miyazaki, director of Ponyo, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, didn't direct this film from Studio Ghibli. Perhaps that is why it lacks his sense of whimsy, that little sprinkling of Miyazaki magic that the Japanese director has given his best work over the decades.
Mary Norton's oft-filmed 60-year-old novel is about the miniature people who live in the walls and below the floorboards of old houses, creatures who "borrow" what they need from the "human beans." Every shopping trip is an expedition — nabbing one cube of sugar, which could last them months, a cracker that can be crushed to make Borrower bread. They live by two rules. "Borrowers take only what they need," and once they've been seen, it's time to move. Those humans and their curiosity are nothing but trouble for Borrowers.
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler of TV's Good Luck Charlie and Wizards of Waverly Place) is a 13-year-old straining at the limits of her world. She knows only her family and can only hope that there are other Borrowers surviving elsewhere. She sneaks outside (Miyazaki's love of nature), tempts the evil ravens who wouldn't mind gobbling her up as a snack — and is spied by a sickly human boy. Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) wants to help, and Arrietty wants to make contact. She sees no threat from this fellow her own age and no need to move, or even tell her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). Naturally, they see things differently.
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The gorgeous pastels of Studio Ghibli's films and famous attention to detail are much in evidence in this Hiromasa Yonebayashi film. The Borrowers' world of repurposed human detritus — pins, empty spools and discarded bolts, double-sided tape, which allows father Pod (Arnett) to scale the heights of a kitchen counter to fetch sugar — is ingeniously realized.
Carol Burnett voices an old housekeeper who longs for the day when she can catch a real Borrower and be exonerated from those childhood charges that she was "crazy," one of the film's many lightly humorous touches. And there are hints of the larger world of Borrowers beyond this garden cottage. Norton wrote more than one book in the series, after all.
But Miyazaki, who co-wrote the script, had nowhere to take it. Either the Borrowers leave, or they stay. They're either discovered and survive or captured and exposed. There's no romance, no way to open up the tale, even though they're using that most fantastical film form, animation.
So as pretty as it is, this Secret World is too Earthbound by far.