Should those who are powerful come to the aid of those who are vulnerable even if that aid is unwanted? What if that aid produces more harm than good? Those are some of the questions Mary Norton asked in her 1952 novel, The Borrowers, on which Disney’s newest release, The Secret World of Arrietty, is based. Arrietty opened in North America on February 17, 2012 to largely favorable reviews.
Arrietty, which began life as a product of Japan’s acclaimed Studio Ghibli, tells the story of a family of tiny people who live peacefully beneath the floorboards of a country house inhabited by a human family (human “beans” they are called). “Borrowing” much of what they need to survive from their human counterparts, the tiny people live secretly, just out of view of the humans on whom they rely for subsistence. Despite being warned by her parents (voiced by real life couple, Amy Poehlher and Will Arnett) that contact with the humans is forbidden, 14 year-old Arrietty’s curiosity leads to her being seen.
Generations of tiny people have lived this way—relying on and out of sight of humans—for a very long time. When Arrietty (voiced by Disney Channel’s Bridgit Mendler) is seen by Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), a sickly human boy whom she befriends, the balance between humans and the little people is altered. Once Shawn discovers the secret world of Arrietty and her parents, he cannot help but intrude. His intentions are pure, he just wants to help “the borrowers.” But within a short time, his help produces the opposite effect and their peaceful existence begins to unravel.
The little people are in constant danger, from nature as well as from humans. But it is the humans who create the most chaos. The little people generally live in harmony with nature. They “borrow” only what they need.
Humans, however, are portrayed as unfeeling and morally corrupt. “Human beings are rich in material things, but our hearts have fallen into poverty,” explains Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the original Japanese version of Arrietty. “Tiny people, by contrast, remain relatively poor but have spiritually affluent lives. Suppose tiny people actually existed on Earth. Which lifestyle would you choose? And which species should survive?” asks Yonebayashi.
Originally released in Japan in 2010, Arrietty was Japan’s highest grossing film that year and went on to win Japan’s “Animation of the Year Award.” It was then released in Asia and Europe. Now, Arrietty has been remade, sort of, with an English speaking cast, new direction and new music.
Despite the slight makeover, Mary Norton’s themes, and the vision of writer and master animator, Hayao Miyazaki, emerge. “Insects, animals and plants coexist in mutual prosperity on this Earth. There are no boundaries between living things. No one possesses the right to divide resources into yours and mine,” says Miyazaki. “Every living thing survives simply by borrowing from nature. There is nothing for anyone—human, animal or plant—to possess. We human beings used to live harmoniously with nature, just as these tiny people do.”
The themes explored in The Secret World of Arrietty are, to be sure, substantial: friendship despite cultural differences, the wise and efficient use of natural resources, illness, death and the plight of outcasts. But at its heart, Arrietty is a lushly drawn and painstakingly crafted film about a girl and her thirst for adventure.
And those are qualities fans of Disney films are sure to appreciate.