Plunging below the grass line to capture a miniature world in precise detail, The Secret World of Arrietty offers exactly what its title promises, unveiling this secret milieu through thoroughly meticulous animation. As befitting the Ghibli brand, the colors are magnificent, the emotional tone mature but wide-eyed, rendering an ordinary country house's environs as a lush sea of greens, browns, and yellows. The result is a patient, elegiac adventure tale that also feels cozy and small, cinematically expanding a classic story without over-enlarging its scope.
Using Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers as a starting point, first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi applies Ghibli's usual free license, bending the source material toward its specific pastoral style. The film opens with the introduction of Shawn (David Henrie, the character's name pointlessly changed from Sho in the original Japanese version), who's been sent to the country to rest up for a risky heart operation. Shawn is the kind of sensitive, sadly grown-up child that often gets the focus in this kind of coming-of-age story, and his prescribed diet of bed rest leaves him bored, desperate for the very excitement that's been banned by doctor's orders. Things develop at a deliberate pace, as he gradually discovers the family of tiny people who reside beneath the house, first spotting red-haired Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), a plucky 14 year old who isn't afraid of facing off against a nasty housecat, despite the fact that it's more than twice her size.
Arrietty lives secreted beneath a pile of bricks inside a subterranean crawlspace, along with her parents, Homily (Amy Poehler) and Pod (Will Arnett). Their hidden house is charming, with lush plants and painted screens over the windows, but difficult to keep stocked. Food and other essentials require dangerous trips to the above world, and the family's life is dependent on the constant acquisition of borrowed objects, a cube of sugar or a dropped hairpin, tiny castoffs that for them mean sustenance.
Shawn's involvement in the lives of the borrowers grows through his budding friendship with Arrietty, which continues despite her father's warning against making contact. Pod hints that there's been interaction between humans and borrowers in the past, with tragic results. We never learn the exact nature of this long-ago incident, beyond its disastrous outcome and the existence of a tiny dollhouse, built by Shawn's grandfather for the borrowers to occupy, a gorgeously handcrafted palace that now sits unoccupied in a spare bedroom. This mystery is one of the little particulars that makes Arrietty feel effortlessly and colorfully alive, while granting necessary seriousness and heft to this intimate story.
In keeping with this balanced style, the film never seems too concerned with providing loud thrills, breezing by on a steady accretion of drama and danger, avoiding the grueling racing around that has capped off otherwise great children's films of late (e.g. most of the Pixar stable). Focusing instead on sensible specifics, Yonebayashi shapes a world that's dazzlingly detail-oriented, processing the routine elements of the borrowers' existence with amazing meticulousness. This is aided by some fantastic sound design, which amplifies the rustle of leaves into a dull roar, the toll of a grandfather clock into a room-shaking symphony. Arrietty's first trip into the house above, which serves as the film's big opening set piece, is unveiled with remarkable patience, every step of the way accounted for, a sequence that makes this feel less like fantasy than the careful depiction of a fully lived-in world.
As is often the case with American reworkings, which tend to prize star power over vocal dexterity, some of the voice work feels bumpy. Arnett's gravelly inflection, for example, has been used so often for comic effect in the past that his lines here, spoken in portentous monotone, often sound unintentionally funny. There's also a weird menace attached to the housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett), whose manic bloodlust against the little people is unexplained and a little strange for the Ghibli universe, where even villains usually get some sympathetic shading. She serves as a threatening fool and inevitable comic relief, the usual broadness of the humor slightly spoiled by how inexplicably vicious the character is.
Otherwise, Arrietty is classic, if slightly minor, Miyazaki, even with another director at the helm. Life lessons are imparted with startling tenderness, the inevitable separateness of humanity and nature is gently reinforced, and a plaintive look is taken at a vanishing way of life, resulting in a bittersweet picture of childhood woven with painstaking care.