Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book “The Borrowers”—about tiny humans who live under the floorboards of houses and discreetly pilfer the stuff they need from the families above them—was adapted for the screen before, in a mediocre 1997 flick with John Goodman that opted for a comic slapstick approach. Now it’s been revisited by Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and the result is a visually sumptuous, gentle—and some would say lackadaisical—film that’s quietly likable but so understated that it borders on the boring.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” centers on the titular heroine, a precocious girl (voiced in this version by Bridget Mendler) who lives with her mom and dad Homily (Amy Poehler) and Pod (Will Arnett) in the remote house of elderly Jessica (Gracie Poletti) and her housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett). Though Hara would love to find them, the only real threat to the borrowers’ wellbeing is Jessica’s cat—until the home welcomes a visitor, Jessica’s young nephew Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly boy needing rest before undergoing a heart operation. He immediately spies Arrietty on one of her unauthorized jaunts into the garden, and tries to make friends with the very little lass.
Arrietty does indeed make herself known to Shawn, despite her parents’ warnings, which turn out to be prescient. The boy’s efforts to improve the family’s lot lead instead to Hara’s discovery of their home and danger for their survival. And though the arrival of Spiller (Moises Arias), an explorer borrower from a nearby subdivision, offers them an alternative, they’re not able to take it until Shawn helps Arrietty rescue her mother from Hara’s clutches. And under Shawn’s influence, even Aunt Jessica’s cat assists the li’l folk.
One can see the invitation to high-octane action in this tale, but Miyazaki and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi defiantly reject that option. Instead they choose a deliberate pace even in sequences that could have been juiced up, such as Pod and Arrietty’s mission upstairs to fetch a sugar cube or Shawn and Arrietty’s escape from a locked room. One can imagine youngsters being enthralled with the delicate coloring of the images fashioned by Ghibli Studio’s army of artists working in the old hand-drawn style, but also nodding off as the narrative ambles along with its almost somnolent characters reciting the dialogue as though in a first sight-reading. The voice work is frankly bland, even from people like Arnett, Poehler and Burnett, who one might expect would have brought some verve to the proceedings. (Their presence in fact represents the third voice cast for the film; an earlier English-speaking version, with Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty, was made for the British market.)
Fans of hand-drawn animation generally, and of Japanese animation in particular, will love “The Secret World of Arrietty,” even though it’s much less imaginative than Miyazaki’s previous features. But it’s unlikely to prove a serious challenge to Pixar or DreamWorks on this side of the Pacific.