Mary Norton’s 1952 juvenile novel The Borrowers was previously adapted in 1997, via a dog-poop-joke-heavy live-action British thing starring John Goodman that hasn’t been widely thought of since about 1998. The new version by the Japanese animation god Hayao Miyazaki, under the re-christened title The Secret World of Arrietty, is so obviously dissimilar the two films might as well not share the same source. Miyazaki’s, of course, is a thing of serene beauty—patient, hushed, in thrall to the countryside (and, needless to say, animated). It’s the kind of children’s film that’s easy to overrate, simply for not treating the younger contingent of its audience like ADD-addled freaks, but far easier to enjoy as the handiwork of a relaxed master filmmaker.
That said, Arrietty is not technically a Miyazaki film. The animator, who “retired” in 1997 and has since directed three more features, merely served as screenwriter and production planner. (Protege Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs.) Still, in look and vibe, Arrietty is a Miyazaki, albeit a considerably less strange and fantastical one. The Norton novel supplies a cleaner narrative than his fans are used to, as well as a world that only diverges from our own in the addition of miniature humans. Under the floorboards of a country house dwells our typically earnest titular tiny hero (voiced, in America at least, by Bridgit Mendler), whose parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, the latter cast well against type as a gruff man’s man) warn her to stay away from the potentially dangerous normal-sized humans. The arrival of a melancholic boy (David Henrie), there for some R&R before major surgery, complicates Arrietty’s feelings.
Of the Miyazaki canon, Arrietty is the one that strives most for normalcy. The scenes of the tiny “borrowers”’ domestic life looks like life in any regular household, only with nails employed as crutches and other make-shift swap-outs. The only strange and otherworldly creatures here are animals and insects drawn large: hordes of leaping grasshoppers, monstrous crows and rats of (relatively speaking) unusual size. The lack of overt magic would be vexing if the film didn’t have that Miyazaki touch. Instead, Arrietty proves that the filmmaker doesn’t need mutating spirit creatures and mutating logic—or even a director’s credit—to strut his stuff.