Arrietty, a Thumbelina-scaled creature, lives with her parents under the floorboards of a mansion in suburban Tokyo. Her parents have one rule, which their adventurous daughter breaks in the opening sequence of The Secret World of Arrietty: Don't let the humans see you! Lucky for us, at first she doesn't realize she is visible.
This captivating animation supervised by sensei Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his protégé, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is about the risks and rewards of being seen. When Shawn, a sickly boy sent to live in the house before he has heart surgery, sees Arrietty, does he squash her like a bug? Dear reader, he is enchanted. As are we.
Adapted from The Borrowers, children's fantasy books by Mary Norton, Arrietty tells a primal story of the dependence of these little people upon the human beings whose cast-offs they glean, humans who might call the fumigators. Arrietty is almost indistinguishable from the lush landscape that is one of the wonders of Miyazaki World. This place has the stillness just before the rustle of wings, the hush before the crackle of leaves. The animators make you see the wind as it whips through the woods.
Like most of the films from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, Arrietty is rendered in lyrical watercolor images that suggest both transparency and depth of focus. The animators show the translucency of an ivy leaf, veins and all, and at the same time the dense green canopy of trees casting shade on the ivy vine. In a Studio Ghibli movie, every blade of grass and flower bud has a secret life.
The style of animation combines photorealism with the lyricism of the brushstroke. Dew droplets on leaves look like seed pearls. As befits a movie about small creatures and large, the visuals segue from micro- to macroscopic. And back again.
Eluding the house cat and predatory crows is a challenge for Arrietty. So are grasshoppers and cockroaches. As she navigates the world outside of the basement terrarium she calls home, Arrietty worries that she may be one of the last in a race of micro-beings. The evening that she first accompanies her father on his nightly hunter/gatherer mission, they rappel up kitchen cabinets to "shop" for a cube of sugar. When they sneak, undetected, into Shawn's room to procure a sheet of tissue, the sugar cube falls out of Arrietty's rucksack. Will Shawn inform the housekeeper? Arrietty hopes not. Her life, as well as those of her parents, depends on it.
As lovingly written as it is beautifully rendered, this delicate but suspenseful film observes the budding relationship between the frail human boy and the vital miniature girl about the size of a thumb drive. That the soundtrack has mostly natural noises, like birdsong and cat purrs, makes this fantasy seem impossibly real. (Did I wish it had been in Japanese with English subtitles? Yes, but then I wouldn't have enjoyed the voice work of Carol Burnett as Hara the maid.)