In the lovely family film The Secret World of Arrietty, the Thumbelina-size title character literally cries giant tears. A brave, inquisitive girl nearly 14 years old and only a few inches high, Arrietty lives with her parents beneath the floorboards of an old country house. Arrietty's family are "Borrowers," miniscule people who live unnoticed in houses and scavenge food and provisions they need from human "Beans," as they call normal-size folk. Because liquids bead differently at the Borrowers' scale, when Arrietty weeps, tears well up to the size of her fists at the corners of her eyes.
The animated films of Japan's Studio Ghibli faithfully focus on such telling details, and it brings a level of craft to Arrietty like you'd find in an intricate, perfectly proportioned dollhouse. Arrietty also marks a generational changing of the guard at the beloved studio. Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary 71-year-old filmmaker of such modern classics as Spirited Away, wrote Arrietty's screenplay. Hiromasa Yonebayashi becomes the youngest director of a Studio Ghibli film at age 38 by helming Arrietty, and proves to be a prize pupil.
One of Arrietty's most exciting sequences comes early on, when Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) goes on her first "borrowing" with her father (Will Arnett in a warm, dramatic turn). In an impressive feat of creative imagination, the filmmakers show the Borrowers step across jutting nails over a cavernous basement, brush past dog-sized bugs, and make an expedition across the massive kitchen in the still of night. We admire the Borrowers' resourcefulness as they rappel down cupboards with a fishhook and string, or scale chair legs with double-sided tape on their hands and feet.
Traditionally, Borrowers abandon their dwellings if the human inhabitants ever see them, and trouble starts when Arrietty is spotted by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly city boy resting at his great-aunt's home. Shawn's reaction to seeing Arrietty isn't like the usual kid in a movie; he's attentive and intensely curious, but not shocked or aggressive. Shawn awaits a heart operation that could be fatal, so as a semi-invalid constantly aware of mortality, he's calm and gentle in his interactions with Arrietty.
A crotchety housekeeper (Carol Burnett) begins to suspect Shawn of communicating with the little people, placing Arrietty's family in jeopardy. At the climax, Shawn and Arrietty have to team up to rescue another Borrower, but despite her tiny size, Shawn's frail health makes him the vulnerable one whom the audience worries about.
The Borrowers has frequently been adapted for the big and small screen since Mary Norton wrote the original book in 1952. Eddie Albert, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent, and Christopher Eccleston have all played the father Borrower. The Studio Ghibli version emphasizes Arrietty's coming of age, and she makes a proud addition to its lineup of resourceful young heroines.
Arrietty's nature animation, full of blooming gardens and babbling brooks, evokes the most idyllic of childhood summer days. Where most animated family films hammer believe-in-yourself themes of self-actualization, Arrietty, like most of Miyazaki's other movies, also stand for respecting others and the surrounding world. They're less about winning than achieving wisdom, and after Arrietty's conclusion, you'll leave feeling both stimulated and serene.