"The Secret World of Arrietty" is a marvelously captivating animated feature about very tiny people and the full-scale world they inhabit. It originates with Japan's Studio Ghibli. Disney is distributing its English-language version. Studio Ghibli, you may recall, is the dream factory cofounded by Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind such classics as "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle," and "Ponyo."
"Arrietty" was co-written by Miyazaki and directed by his protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Gary Rydstrom directed the English-language version. The English-language screenplay, in which new dialogue by American voice-over actors had to painstakingly match the mouth movements of the animated characters speaking Japanese, was written by Karey Kirkpatrick.
They should all be commended for a job entrancingly well done. Most animated movies these days are computer-generated, cacaphonous, and tricked up in 3-D. "Arrietty," by contrast, has a hushed mysteriousness. Its becalmed lyricism is a balm.
The source material is the acclaimed children's book series "The Borrowers," by Mary Norton, which has been filmed before, most notably as a 1993 British miniseries and as an underrated 1997 film starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. In this version, 14-year-old Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) lives with her mother and father (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) under the floorboards of an old country cottage. When Arrietty encounters Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly human boy convalescing in the house, she opens up a portal into the big-people world that threatens both their lives and the lives of her parents.
The tiny people, who call themselves "borrowers," have always made it a cardinal rule not to get involved with humans. And yet Arrietty is irresistibly drawn to that world, not only because of Shawn but because of the sheer bigness of everything she encounters. It's a supernal coming-of-age story. Arrietty doesn't hold back. On a maiden excursion with her father into the aboveboard household, she takes to the expedition like a crack mountaineer. She stands up to grasshoppers and rats and scurries along rickety parapets. A discarded pin becomes her sword.
As daring as Arrietty is, she is matched by the cronish housekeeper Haru, who vows to rid the place of the little "pests." In a great piece of casting, Haru is voiced by Carol Burnett, whose gift for low-down comic villainy has never been put to better use. The familiarity of Burnett's voice should by all rights yank us out of the movie's magical realm, but the reverse is true. She's like an old friend – a welcoming committee in a strange land.
The lyricism of the imagery is all of a piece with its sound design. The whoosh of wind and the creaking of cottage and countryside cast a spell that is hypnotic. "Arrietty" lulls us into a heightened consciousness where everything in life is animistic. Grade: A (Rated G)