Synonymous with the humanistic, eco-minded, pastel-hued elegance of Japanese filmmaker and animation virtuoso Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki co-founded, has earned its vaunted reputation as Disney’s Pixar of the East. Although Miyazaki serves only on the periphery as co-writer and production supervisor, his soulfulness still radiates through The Secret World of Arrietty, a hand-drawn adaptation of Mary Norton’s ageless kid-lit series The Borrowers, about four-inch-high humanoids who live beneath the floorboards of those dangerous “human beans.” Within the Ghibli catalog, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s delicate debut (the English-dubbed version is credited to Gary Rydstrom) is an underplotted, near-humorless trifle, but in contrast to the shrill, saccharine CGI cartoons—live-action included—that pass for family entertainment today, it’s pure magic.
Fourteen years old and literally knee-high to a kitty cat, inquisitive emblem of purity Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) ventures to the idyllic rural home above to forage with her somber father, Pod (Will Arnett, playing against type). Among her pop’s golden rules of “borrowing” is that only necessary items that won’t be missed should be pilfered. Grappling to ledges with a fish hook and string, a grand nighttime kitchen heist—the front-loaded film’s most thrilling sequence—yields one measly sugar cube . . . which Arrietty loses when spooked by the gaze of Shawn (David Henrie), a giant boy with a bum ticker who has been sent to the house for pre-op care from an elderly woman and her meddlesome housekeeper (Carol Burnett, adding rubber-voiced charisma as chief antagonist). Back in the teenier kitchen, anxiety-prone mom Homily (Amy Poehler) flips out over her daughter being spotted by the sickly enemy, who is obviously destined to become Arrietty’s only friend and unspoken first crush.
Perhaps too fittingly small-scale, the story is trouble-free to the point that it feels slight, though it’s full of gorgeous renderings: Shawn matter-of-factly explains the permanence of death to Arrietty while lying in a field that’s alive with lush watercolors. The otherworldliness that is Miyazaki’s trademark has been tamped down into naturalistic textures, but the look is still as meticulous and confident as the master’s handiwork. Beyond the ace animation, there are also inspired sensory delights to be heard, from the sweet theme song by French vocalist/harpist Cécile Corbel, to the way a straight pin unsheathes from Arrietty’s dress with a loud, metallic clang like a broadsword to the ears of the little people.