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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

May 21st, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack

2012 has been an excellent year for movies. Not only have we had far more hits than most years past, we've also had a lot more high quality movies than we normally have at this time of year. One of the very early releases that pleased critics was The Secret World of Arrietty, which is the latest from Studio Ghibli, which is one of the best animation studios in the world. It's no surprise the film earned critical praise, but it wasn't able to find breakout success at the box office. (Anime films rarely open truly wide, so this is not a surprise.) Should moviegoers give it a shot now that it is out on the home market? Should fans of the genre in general or of Studio Ghibli's past work in particular pick it up?

The Movie

First a note: I will be using the names in the English-language version of the movie, but there is the original Japanese track as well.

The film begins with the 12-year old Shawn driving with his Aunt Jessica to his mother's childhood home in the country, where he will be staying for a week. When he gets there, he sees the cat trying to hunt something in a bush. The cat is chased off by a crow and when Shawn goes to investigate, he sees what he thinks it s tiny girl. That's tiny as in a few inches tall.

He's not imagining things. The girl he sees is Arrietty, a borrower. Borrowers are tiny people who live in some small houses and live by, 'borrowing' things from humans, who they refer to as Beans. Arrietty's adventurous nature puts a lot of stress on her mother, Homily; after all, when they are as small as they are, an adventurous nature can lead to being caught by the humans, or worse, eaten by toads. This is made even worse because tonight is the night she goes on her first borrow. When her father, Pod, comes home, he announces there's a new Bean in the house, and with that Homily hopes Arrietty won't be going on a borrow that night. Sure, the new Bean is a child, but children can be crueler that adults in her experience. However, Pod also notes that children tend to go to bed earlier, and this particular child seems sick and weak, so he won't be a problem.

Unfortunately, there is a problem. While going for a tissue from Shawn's room, Arrietty is spotted and accidentally drops the sugar cube. Also, she wasn't exactly truthful when she described her previous adventure, and neglected to mention Shawn saw her before in the field. When he sees her and calls out to her to stop, her father knows the truth. He agrees to keep this information from Homily for now, but if the humans learn that the borrowers exist, they will have to leave. That's always been the way. So the next day when Shawn thinks he's being nice and giving back the sugar cube Arrietty dropped, he's actually making the situation worse. Homily's convinced it's a trap and figures it's time for them to leave.

Arrietty visits Shawn's room again the next day to tell him to leave her and her family alone. However, Shawn is lonely and desperate for a friend to talk to. He's in the country because his mother had to go away on business and he's waiting for a major heart operation. The loneliness and the stress of the operation are a lot to deal with at his age. His attempts to convince Arrietty and her family that he is no threat to them is just making the situation worse. Will he convince them that he's a friend? Or will they be forced to find a new home?

Studio Ghibli's track record is simply amazing. In their 25 years as a company, they've produced 18 films, 18 if you count Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the company was founded, but with a lot of the same talent as the early movies. A few of them have not been released in the United States yet, but of the ones that have made it here, only one of them has earned overall positive reviews, while ten of them earned 90% positive reviews or better. The Secret World of Arrietty is among the films that have earned near universal praise.

The film works on every level. Obviously this includes the major things, like creating compelling characters and having an engaging story for them to be in. I personally prefer movies with strong female characters in them, partially because they are so rare. Arrietty felt like a strong, but very real character. But it also includes things that a lot of filmmakers would overlook. The sound design in this movie is excellent. It helps create a true separation between the world of the Borrowers and the world of the Humans. The level of detail in the tiny world of the borrowers is incredible. Plus, they got things like water done correctly. Not to get too far off on a tangent, but when working with miniatures, it's a lot harder to make a model boat look realistic than it is to make a model castle, because the way water acts gives away the scale. So, for instance, if you had a really tiny teapot, when you were pouring some tea, it wouldn't create a tiny stream, but a big drop. This film gets it right. Granted, the film didn't have the same visual flair as some of the more fantasy-filled Studio Ghibli films, but the attention to the little details more than compensated for that.

On the downside, The Secret World of Arrietty does have a few moments where the pace is a little slow. Plus there's a lack of an intimidating villain, which gives the small a smaller scope. It's more like a few days in the life of an average group of people, rather than an epic adventure. But overall it is an easy recommendation.

The Extras

Extras are the only real disappointment on the Blu-ray combo pack. The DVD has a music video for Bridgit Mendler's "Summertime" and a short making of featurette. The Blu-ray has a second music video, but the main extra is the full movie in the original Japanese storyboard form. This would have been really nice as a Picture-in-Picture track with an audio commentary track. Granted, it is a Japanese film, so most of the of the people involved in making it don't speak English well, but I'm sure there are a few animators at Disney that have been inspired by Studio Ghibli and could sit down for an audio commentary track.

The audio and video is near reference level quality. The colors are amazing, the level of detail is incredible, the shadows are deep, and it goes without saying that there are no compression artifacts, print damage, or hints of digital manipulation. The audio is equally as strong with plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers and the base, especially when we are following Arrietty in her tiny world.

The Blu-ray combo pack costs 35% more than the DVD, which is good deal, with the technical presentation and the additional extras.

The Verdict

The Secret World of Arrietty is yet another amazing film from Studio Ghibli. Although it takes place in a tiny world, it is very grounded in reality and should draw in adults fans as well as kids. The DVD doesn't have a lot of extras and is probably just worth a rental, but the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack is a contender for Pick of the Week.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Secret World of Arietty