When is the last time you saw an animated film for children that was soothing? Most studios feel obliged to pump up the little tykes with nonstop bustle, eye-frying color and action figure tie-ins, the entertainment equivalent of heavily sugared breakfast cereal. "The Secret World of Arrietty," a Disney release from the Japanese Ghibli animation studio, could hardly be more different. It is less a roller-coaster ride than a peaceful stroll through a beautiful garden.
Ghibli films have a fantastic visual style and tone all their own, and first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi adapts Mary Norton's 1952 children's classic "The Borrowers" according to the house rules.
At a leisurely pace we meet Shawn (voiced by David Henrie), who is visiting his grandmother's secluded cottage for some bed rest before a heart surgery. The rolling lawn is a wonderland of flora and fauna, including Arrietty, a thumb-sized "Borrower" whose family lives beneath the floorboards and scavenges for food and necessities while the "beans" sleep in their gigantic beds. Shawn and Arrietty warm to each other's company. He begins leaving tokens near her tiny home -- little notes, sugar cubes and flowers. Her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) warn her away from any interaction with the big people, while grandmother's servant Hana (Carol Burnett) begins a campaign to prove that the unseen Borrowers do indeed exist.
The film has a sweetly sentimental tone of fantasy and nostalgia as it charts the course of this most unusual summer romance. The little acts of kindness and lingering looks that the new friends share are an idealized portrait of first love. The visual design of the environments and characters is a heady mix of Laura Ashley interiors and Thomas Kinkade landscapes, but it avoids vapid kitsch.
The use of space, light and shadow draws viewers into "Arrietty's" world, and the inspired sound design gives a sense of how monumental and disorienting a human-scaled house is for characters no larger than a cricket. The domestic details of life in a tiny home are carefully observed. When Arrietty's mother pours tea from a minuscule pot, the surface tension of the liquid makes it come out the spout as a bead.
This is a comforting film and rather a placid one, but not listless. Arrietty, a headstrong redhead, fearlessly stands up to grandmother's pushy cat, and beats back meddlesome insects. The tension here arises mostly from comic conflict with the ogre-like Hana rather than a real sense of danger. This fantasy is a safe space where viewers can escape the harsh, messy realities of daily life.