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Movie Review: The Secret Life of Arrietty

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Just as there are those who look forward to every new Pixar animated film, there are also those who cannot wait for the new releases from Japan's Studio Ghibli. Like the Pixar pics, Studio Ghibli's film are also instant classics from My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away to Ponyo just to name a few.

Where Pixar is led by John Lassiter's genius, Ghibli has co-founder Hayao Miyazaki to spearhead its vision. One of the best animators of all time, Miyazaki directed the aforementioned films, won an Oscar for Spirited Away and continues to win awards and raves for his other films like Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, among others.

Obviously good animators know good animation and it's no secret Lassiter and Miyazaki are friends who admire each others' work. Disney, which distributes Pixar films, also has the rights to all of Ghibli's films. As chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, Lassiter has been an executive producer of some of those Ghibli films' U.S. versions, overseeing their English language dubbing and being instrumental in exposing them to a larger audience. (Anyone notice the plush Totoro in Toy Story 3?)

Now comes another Studio Ghibli film released by Disney, and like the previous ones, it deserves your attention as well: The Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton's children's book series The Borrowers, is about a tiny family who are part of a secret world of four-inch people who live underneath the floorboards of homes, "borrowing" things they need from human "beans" that won't be missed.

The borrowers live carefully, so as to never be seen by humans, but when one particular family's daughter, Arrietty, befriends the new sick human boy who's just arrived to the house, the family feels their lives are now in danger and pack up to move. Unfortunately, the damage to their lives begins before they can leave.

As with all Ghibli films, whether it is tiny people in Arrietty, a goldfish princess in Ponyo, or forest spirits in Totoro, the fantastical living in tandem with normal humans never feels weird or questionable. And though you never know where it's going and how it's going to end up, the ride is always interesting because nothing ever feels contrived or predictable. Rather there is a quiet gentleness and a deep beauty that resonates no matter if you're a child or an adult. It speaks to all without needing to be labeled a particular genre -- other than animation.

And the animation is breathtaking. Not in that computer animated we-see-every-piece of hair-follicle-sway-in-the-wind, but more like a Matisse painting come to life. Miyazaki did not direct this one, but was instrumental in the planning and the writing of the screenplay. He hired first-time filmmaker Hirosama Yonebashi, officially the youngest director in the Ghibli fold, and the result is a stunning world that forces viewers to take the surroundings they often take for granted and see them from an awesomely, overwhelming perspective of a tiny borrower. Electrical outlets become passageways from one side of the wall to another, a teakettle is a boat, a human needle becomes Arrietty's sword and duct tape on the bottom of her father's shoes enables him to climb the side of cabinet.

When Arrietty was released in Japan, it became the country's highest grossing film at the box office that year with 12 million people turning out to see it.

Creating an English dub was challenging because Japanese sounds are longer than American ones and tend to end with an open vowel. That means the animated characters' mouths are usually open at the end of a sentence. Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (The Spiderwick Chronicles) had to write an English screenplay using words that not only fit the mouth movements set forth by the existing animation, but construct sentences to fit the length of the longer Japanese sentences. That must not have been easy, but the final product on screen makes it look like it was never even an issue.

The British version sees Arrietty voiced by Saorise Ronan (The Lovely Bones) with Mark Strong and Olivia Coleman as her parents. The U.S. version utilizes the Disney machine, populating the film with its roster of Disney Channel stars in the kids roles. There is Brigit Mendler (Good Luck Charlie) as Arrietty, David Henrie (The Wizards of Waverly Place) as the human boy she befriends and Moises Arias of Hanna Montana as a young borrower named Spiller. All are to be commended for their work.

Real-life husband and wife Amy Poehler and Will Arnett play Arrietty's parents with Arnett showing a restraint and gravitas not previously heard on screen. Carol Burnett as housekeeper Haru is hilarious in that same way that made her Miss Hannigan character in the 1982 Annie film so delightful and memorable.

The music in the film is sung by French singer/songwriter Cecile Corbel, whose voice is as lush and as beautiful as the scenery she's paired with. It's enough to make anyone rush out and buy the CD soundtrack.