The latest offering from esteemed Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli (“Ponyo,” “Spirited Away”) comes to American audiences courtesy of Disney, and that seems like a win-win arrangement. “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a broadly appealing (and maybe even bankable) avowal of good old-fashioned make-believe.
And for all the singularity implied by Ghibli guru Hayao Miyazaki’s unusual credit, “planning and screenplay by,” it also has a sort of dub-ready universality. Aside from the American English version — written by Karey Kirkpatrick, directed by Gary Rydstrom, and starring the voices of Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, and Carol Burnett — there’s also a British English version, with yet another cast. Not to mention whatever versions exist in other languages. This is one of those all-ages movies whose appeal derives directly from not having much to lose in translation.
Adapted from “The Borrowers,” the first in a series of British children’s books by Mary Norton dating back to 1952, and directed, originally, by Miyazaki protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty” portrays the denizens of a stately but rustic country house, particularly the very tiny people who for several generations have subsisted rather resourcefully under its floorboards. One of these “Borrowers,” the eponymous young heroine (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), is a girl on the cusp of adolescence and accordingly eager for adventure. Naturally, this causes some consternation for her taciturn dad (Arnett) and her too-nervous mom (Poehler).
Borrowers live peaceably and preferably unnoticed among humans, known to them as “Beans.” Never mind that the self-applied moniker is a euphemism, as they don’t actually return what they take. Borrowers “borrow” only what they need and what Beans won’t miss — a sugar cube, a Kleenex — and tend to make it last a lot longer than the Beans would anyway. They are models of inconspicuous consumption. It’s fun to watch them work, rappelling from kitchen countertops with earrings used as grappling hooks, and impressive to behold the film’s fully telescopic view of how far down this unwittingly cooperative resource-sharing trickles: Left briefly unattended, that same sugar cube inevitably gets reduced to still smaller bits and carted off by ants to their own tiny unseen home.
If this is sounding low-key, well, yes. The trademark Ghibli animation style prioritizes lush, lovingly drawn and sound-designed atmosphere over high-stakes drama, and that’s literally the beauty of it. You just want to hang out here. (Compare and contrast with the blaring CGI of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” from which escape can’t come soon enough.) Plot is provided, albeit clunkily, as soon as Arrietty gets noticed by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly Bean boy of about her age (if well beyond her height) who’s been stashed away at the house to rest up before a risky heart operation. Also, the Bean maid, Hara (Burnett), wants to prove that Borrowers exist and redeem herself from a reputation for “losing things.”
Through these tensions, Yonebayashi suggests the mutilating magnification of good intentions transposed between incompatible scales. More than that, though, and maybe more importantly, he animates the gentle wonder of a secret world.