I’ve been a big fan of Studio Ghibli ever since I watched Spirited Away late one night in college.  I believe my good friend Alex Cranz was also there.

We watched the subbed version that night.  I’ve always been a fan of dubbed over subbed.  I know I’m in the minority, but whatevs.  H8ers gonna h8.

That being said, I’m always happy to see the Ghibli films in the American movie theatre.  Heck, I am so incredibly glad that we get to see them here at all!  And no matter how weird and over-wrought the translated dialogue gets at the end of these movies, I still prefer dubbed.

I saw Miyazaki’s beautiful version of the little mermaid story, Ponyo, a couple years ago and was blown away by the sweetness of the story and stunning animation.  And this big, life-changing story was executed with the power and determination of pint-sized heroes: children, even!  Now, his studio returns with The Secret World of Arrietty, and the similar threads of these films are really starting to show.

Before I get into it any further, I want to point out that Hayao Miyazaki, who I thought directed this film, did not.  One of Ghibli’s animators, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, did.  Talk about stylization.

Firstly:  all of Studio Ghibli’s major films from the last few years contain a strong female lead:

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

Howl’s Moving Castle

Ponyo

These are all tales of girls who boast a heck of a lot of girl power.  Sure, many of them cry those gigantic tears of frustration.

The TEARS. The gigantic TEARS!

But they never give up.  They never say, “I am a woman, and thus must relinquish my story to the most available strapping male character,” which Disney princess films always did.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty and write down every action those princesses take to move the story forward.  You will not be pleased.

Arrietty is also a story about a daughter’s relationship with her parents.  This is also a common thread of Studio Ghibli films, as it’s really the core of both Ponyo and Spirited Away: the child who fights for her family.

Arrietty shows her mother the pin she uses as a sword.

There’s also a bit of The Wizard of Oz in Studio Ghibli films: the journey into an unknown world, the battles with inner and outer demons, the quest to return home.  There’s a lot of mythology in these stories, and Arrietty has proven herself to be the next big heroine in a canon of admirable characters.

Arrietty, despite her small stature, ventures out into the world to commit her first “borrowing,” a rite of passage which all borrowers must face.  She ascends into this strange new world (the house above) with her father, armed only with a pin and a knapsack.  They’ve gone out to borrow sugar and tissue paper (borrowers only take what they need).  What they don’t know is that Shawn, the new “bean” (or, human being) in the house, has been thinking about Arrietty all day.  He caught a glimpse of her in the grass during the first few moments of the film, and now, he’s watching for her everywhere.

So when his eyes lock onto Arrietty as she helps her father quietly pull the tissue paper from its box, she freezes, and her life changes forever.  They’ve been seen by the “bean,” and now they must make preparations to leave their home forever.  Arrietty can’t help but be curious about Shawn and the world he inhabits, but she also feels responsible for her family’s impending doom at the hands of the beans.

"Aww yeah, girl. Don't be afraid. I see you there behind that Kleenex."

Arrietty is, at its heart, a tale of friendship.  She wants Shawn to forget about her and keep her existence secret, but she soon finds that Shawn is more interested in being her friend than he is in pawning her off to the flea circus.

But a villain surely must appear.  This villain is Hara, the housekeeper, who has been after the borrowers for years.  She catches Shawn visiting Arrietty’s home under the floor of the closet, and soon after, she’s kidnapped Arrietty’s mother and put her into a jar.

Hara is a terrible house guest.

The remainder of the film revolves around Arrietty working with Shawn in order to save her mother.  It’s all very well-executed and, actually, quite funny.  Hara certainly made the kids laugh in my theater.

I can’t help but compare her wide-mouthed, flat-nosed character design to the evil monk from Princess Mononoke, another villain who starts off seemingly helpful and “good-hearted.”

Hara = Jigo.

Despite this brief synopsis, Arrietty is much slower in pace than a lot of Studio Ghibli’s films, and I often found myself believing I had drifted into a pleasant dream rather than an intense nightmare.  It seems that Yonebayashi is moving away from the usual scary, surreal and heart-pounding moments with this film.  Nothing gets quite as epic and intense  as the ending of Ponyo, for instance, where characters have to make life-altering choices that might rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.  Arrietty is much more realistic, if a movie about tiny people living under the floorboards can be described as such.

You highly expect, after seeing Ponyo and Mononoke, that Shawn and Arrietty will end up together at the end of the film.  I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but let’s just say that Arrietty definitely does not become a human being, and we’re left with a rather abrupt ending that leaves you wanting more.  If I had any criticism for this Yonebayashi installment, it would be that the ending was rather abrupt and not true to usual form.  But, who can knock an artist for mixing it up a little?

Instead, we’re left with the idea that an aboriginal borrower character named Spiller and Arrietty might get together.

I can see so much fan fiction in their future.

Arrietty x Spiller

To sum it up: go see Arrietty.  Your heart will thank you, and you just might have sweeter dreams tonight.