“The Secret World of Arrietty,” the new movie where the wizardry of Studio Ghibli (“Sprited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”) meets the lasting power of Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers,” has moments of such pure wonder that there were times when my imagination felt 12 years old again.
At the same time, the lyricism and sheer visual beauty that my adult self could appreciate may not be enough to overcome a slowness that would have sorely tried my younger self’s patience. The movie definitely made me feel like a kid again, but I’m not sure the kid I had once been would have been able to properly appreciate it.
Largely following the plot of the first “Borrowers” book, the movie follows young Arietty and her family as they make their lives in a miniature home underneath the floorboards and “borrow” what they need to survive.
It’s here that the movie is at its strongest, managing scale and detail so well that the audience actually feels as though they’ve been transported into the tiny, exquisitely complex spaces themselves. Even walking along a row of nails in the space between two walls feels like a magical journey, and for a moment I remembered exactly why I had first fallen in love with “The Borrowers” all those years ago.
The rest of the movie is more traditionally beautiful, with luxuriantly painted backgrounds that are impossible to find in American-made movies nowadays. At times it seems as though the artists put forests and a huge flower field behind the house just so they could have the opportunity to paint cascades of petals, and equally loving attention has been paid to every shaft of sunlight and quivering drop of water.
Most of the frames could easily be separated and hung on a wall, and the movie lingers on many of them long enough that it’s almost like walking through an art gallery.
Unfortunately, that also turns out to be the movie’s one major flaw. “The Secret World of Arrietty” has a slow pace even compared to other Studio Ghibli work, and sometimes that slowness stretched past lyricism into a very pretty boredom.
The simplified version of the story used by the movie probably would have fit neatly into a movie half as long, and more than once I found myself wishing for a few of the narrative asides that kept the book moving so fluidly.
They even had the opportunity – a tame but sweet romance between Arrietty and a forest Borrower doesn’t take its second step until a scene that only happens well into the credits.
In the end, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a beautiful look at the magic of childhood. Spending a little more time with the adventure of childhood, however, would have made it even better.