The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese-style animated film, which is about two young people’s struggle to survive and cope with challenges bigger than themselves — figuratively for one, literally for the other. Since it is technically a Disney movie, and understandably mild in terms of any potential action or excitement (it is of course rated G), it was disappointingly short and lacked a great deal of plot development. So while most assuredly family-safe, there were, unfortunately, story details left open and even in some cases ignored. My personal favorite top 3 movies are Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. All are films that Hayao Miyazaki has been involved in making. And while I still consider The Secret World of Arrietty to be a Miyazaki film (even though he only co-wrote it as opposed to directed or produced), I feel it just doesn’t make the cut.
First we meet Sean, a 12-year old boy who has been driven out to the country by his aunt, to the house where his mother used to live as a little girl. It is also revealed that Sean has an extremely weak heart, and will soon have surgery. The purpose of the journey is so young Sean can get some peace and tranquility before his operation.
Then we are introduced to Arrietty and her family. Mere inches tall, these “little people” are introduced as Borrowers. These Borrowers live a life of secrecy and subtlety. As Arrietty has “come of age” (14) her anticipation for going on her first “borrowing” has mounted to near unbearable levels. Quite adversely, her mother who habitually frightens herself with fears that her only daughter will be “eaten by the cat” or “squashed like a bug” doesn’t like the fact that Arrietty is so eager to venture outside their home, which is actually situated under the house floorboards. Arreitty’s father, a seasoned Borrower, insists to his wife, that Arrietty is a strong girl and must learn how to take care of herself. To that end, he takes her along on a Borrowing.
It is here the film meets its first (albeit minor) snag. What they term as “borrowing,” might also be termed as scavenging or even stealing. Whenever their “supplies” run low, the Borrowers must venture outside the confines of their domicile to grab items they need: sugar cubes, tissue sheets, etc. While it is made clear the Borrowers never take anything that will be missed, it is still taking. Borrowing implies whatever is taken is eventually returned, however this is clearly not the case. But it also implied that a single sugar cube can last a year or more. So they are not thieves but they are extremely wary of Humans and avoid making it appear that anything is out of place, lest they risk revealing their presence. It is here that yet another obstacle is hit upon.
While Arrietty and her father (who are out borrowing while the Humans are asleep) attempt to remove a sheet of tissue paper from its box, Arrietty is spotted by Sean who lies awake in his bed. Panicking, Arrietty accidentally drops the sugar cube she had been carrying as she and her father make themselves scarce, leaving Sean wondering if he was dreaming or really saw tiny people in his room. It is as this point that we are made privy to the fact that there may once have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of Borrowers, however because of the danger of “Human curiosity” they have either died or moved elsewhere. Unfortunately, this latent and rampant fear of Humans the Borrowers seem to carry with them is never truly explained; only that Humans are, by nature, curious, and dangerous because of it. I believe this is a somewhat crucial plot aspect that could have been explored more deeply, but was simply left on the sidelines.
When Sean leaves the dropped sugar cube out for the Borrowers to re-collect, Arrietty’s parents make the decision to move, as they cannot stay in a house where the Humans know of their presence. However, the existence of an extremely ornate and detailed dollhouse, which was built by Sean’s grandmother (apparently FOR the Borrowers), begs the question why Arrietty’s descendants have shared the house for so long with Humans if their being there was suspected all along. This point is further illustrated by the character Hara, the house’s caretaker, who seems to have always believed little people live in the walls and floors of the house but has never been able to prove it.
We discover that while Arrietty does not want to go against her parent’s wishes, she also believes not all Humans are bad and chances re-returning the sugar cube and revealing her existence to Sean. She informs him that she and her family will soon be moving away from the house, as any further exposure could potentially mean their deaths. Sean finds this upsetting and informs Arrietty of his condition. Explaining that he has “accepted fate” and believes he is the one who is going to die. Contrarily, Arrietty tells him she has lived with the belief that you can never give up hope and must continue to fight with all your strength to survive. It is shortly after this brief encounter that Hara finds and captures Arrietty’s mother, suspicious that Sean knows of them and has been keeping it a secret. As an added precaution, she locks Sean in his room, so he will not be able to interfere with her plans.
Again, plot details are left out here. Though it is clear that Hara wishes to expose the Borrowers, and believes them to be little thieves, she seemingly does not intend to harm them, even though she calls a pest control company and requests they “trap the pests” in the house. She keeps Arrietty’s mother in a jar as insurance, but still it is extremely unclear if she only wishes to show them to the world or profit by their exhibition.
Discovering her mother’s capture, she risks turning to the only person who might be able to help her. Sean gladly obliges and consoles the fretting Arrietty. Discovering his door to be locked, He climbs out his window and with Arrietty’s help, unlocks the window in the neighboring room and searches the kitchen for Arrietty’s mother. Hara, of course confused as to how Sean has “escaped” his room, attempts to cover up her plot. While Sean distracts her, Arrietty locates and frees her mother. Shortly thereafter the pest control arrive and the audience is treated to a fairly amusing scene where every attempt Hara makes to reveal the Borrower’s existence is foiled and she is simply made to appear a senile old woman who has simply “gotten into the sherry again.”
The final scene is Sean and Arrietty’s tearful farewell. Sean explains that he believes now that he will live through his operation, and that his heart is strong because Arrietty is in it. As a token of her thanks and friendship, Arrietty gives Sean her make-shift hair pin. Sean woefully accepts her explanation that their moving is for her family’s own safety and in the final narrated sequence, Sean explains that a year later (obviously implying that he did live through his operation), he returned to the area and was pleased to hear reports of neighbors saying various objects around their homes has mysteriously “gone missing.”
In summary, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to not be so secret, as nearly all the main human characters hint that they know at least something of their existence, even if they’re just rumors. And while there are certainly amusing and innovative aspects of the story (in one scene, Arrietty’s father climbs to a high surface using double stick tape strapped to his hands and feet), and clear positive-sounding messages that life is sacred, there are gaping holes in the plot that could have been explained more fully, and some plot points that seemed to be ignored completely (for example, where did the Borrowers come from? If they feared Humans so much, why do they choose to live in such close proximity to them?). So while undeniably Disney, it didn’t measure up to several other films Hayao Miyazaki has been involved in making that I personally have really enjoyed.