Animated feature shines with breathtaking visuals

It would be hard to name a film studio that’s earned more respect than Studio Ghibli, the Japanese production company that, as a purveyor of brilliant works of animation, has an even more reliable track record than Pixar.

This sterling reputation is due in no small part to co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who might be the only person who could conceivably challenge Walt Disney for the title of “greatest animator in history.”

Here kitty, kitty · Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s animated wonder The Secret World of Arrietty contains stunning visuals and a talented cast of voiceover actors. Arrietty is a four-inch-tall girl who lives within the confines of an average family home and must face obstacles everyday ­— like a massive cat. - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures

Studio Ghibli’s newest release, The Secret World of Arrietty, isn’t one of Miyazaki’s own films, but his script, combined with the efforts of first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi — the youngest in the studio’s history to helm a film — contains the high level of polish and simple sense of wonder that Ghibli is famous for.

More so than some other examples of anime, Arriety might be familiar to American audiences as the film is a reasonably faithful take on the classic children’s book series The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. The series features an evolutionarily improbable race of minuscule people — roughly four inches tall — who live unnoticed within the walls and floors of regular-sized homes, “borrowing” from humans to survive. It’s true that these fantastical beings don’t actually return any of what they borrow, but they also have a strict policy against taking any more than they need, so you can’t fault them too much.

Though the film opens on Shawn, a boy sent to rest in the countryside while awaiting risky heart surgery, its focus quickly shifts to the far more spirited Arrietty, a young and adventurous borrower who lives with her parents beneath Shawn’s new home. The entire concept lends itself very well to a Studio Ghibli production: The premise is inexplicable, but it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact yet whimsical fashion that it’s easy for viewers to get immersed in.

Then there’s the opportunity for visual inventiveness that the story provides: Arrietty’s father uses mundane household utilities to perform fantastic feats of traversal, much to the audience’s delight, and the miniaturized perspective of the tiny people makes even a simple kitchen become a vast, daunting terrain to explore.

The animation in Arrietty is a gorgeous testament to what can still be done in the craft, even when working in two dimensions. The characters and environments are drawn to the peak of crispness, everything beautifully detailed with fluid and expressive movements for the entirety of the film. A steady stream of new and exciting settings and set pieces ensure that no one will forget for a moment that they’re watching an absolute work of art. For proponents of animation, the visual elements alone make the film a must-see.

That’s not all — the other elements of the film hold up as well, including the simple but sincere story that unfolds when Arrietty comes into contact with Shawn and brings very unwanted attention to her own family in the process. The plot can occasionally feel a bit too saccharine, with one of the film’s very last lines in particular eliciting a few well-deserved groans. When a movie wears its heart on its sleeve like this one does, though, it’s hard to fault it too much for an occasional overdose of sentiment.

And there’s the voice cast, which ties everything together rather nicely. Some purists will want to hear the original Japanese dialogue with subtitled English, but whenever Disney localizes a Ghibli film, it takes care of perfectly matching each role to an actor who will do the voice justice. Bridgit Mendler makes an endearing Arrietty, but the true scene-stealers are her parents, voiced by real-life married couple and icons of television comedy, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler.

Poehler voices Arrietty’s mother as a frantic but hilarious bundle of nerves, and Arnett brings out his trademark gravely voice, playing the role completely straight and somehow managing to earn laughs with almost every single line.

With Ponyo in 2009 and even more so now with Arrietty, one increasingly gets the sense that Disney is giving Eastern animation its due, treating these movies as the blockbuster entertainment events that they are in their native Japan. Playing on more than 1,200 screens, more Americans than ever before will have the opportunity to see a Ghibli film in the best way possible: a packed theater.

There is often an almost tangible sense of magic that goes into Studio Ghibli’s anime films, and it’s something that demands to be seen and shared. The Secret World of Arrietty has that spark, and it’s a film that shouldn’t be missed.