Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sacred Secrets

Is it wrong that I've never seen Spirited Away? The film, directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is probably still the most well-known Japanese animated movie more than a decade after its release. After a cutting a wide swath through audiences worldwide, it became the second ever recipient of the Academy Awards' Best Animated Feature award, and remains the only winner of that particular prize to be made outside of the English-speaking world. Since then, Miyazaki has of course become a name synonymous with Japanese animation; one could argue that he has done as much for the medium as Akira Kurosawa has for cinema in general. Studio Gibli, the animation studio Miyazaki founded way back in 1985, has turned out eighteen films so far, many of which have managed to make their ways to our shores, albeit in the dubbed, Hollywood-edited formats many of us are used to. Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo are all well known to the more culturally cinematic out there, and Miyazaki was a big reason those films are so loved the world over. Now, Studio Gibli brings us The Secret World of Arrietty, notable not only for being based on English novel 'The Borrowers' by Mary Norton, but for being the first major US release by Gibli to NOT be directed by Miyazaki (he did co-write the screenplay, however). As my first interaction with Gibli and Miyazaki, the big question is whether I'll be impressed with hand-drawn animations and archaic visuals after more than a decade of The Incredibles, Up, and Rango pushing the envelope of believable and surrealistic 3D graphics.

Won't someone spare the lady an umbrella??
Shawn (David Henrie), whose parents are too busy to care for him, has temporarily moved into his aunt's home in preparation for a coming surgical procedure. A problem with Shawn's heart has left him somewhat frail, and he's moved here to avoid too much excitement, so as to avoid worsening his condition. It's lonely at the house, though, and through exploration and plain luck he happens upon Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler). Arrietty is descended from a family of Borrowers, tiny people who borrow (hence the name) small things that nobody will miss; things that the Borrowers need to survive. Along with her wizened father (Will Arnett) and her cautious mother (Amy Poehler), fourteen-year-old Arrietty is just learning how to survive in a world where a six-inch person has no shortage of natural predators. Though Shawn and Arrietty want to be friends, just his knowledge of her existence causes dangers to arise and the pair to make difficult decisions as to their prospective futures.

Wow, you looked a LOT smaller from a distance...
As far as stories go, this is as simple a tale of mismatched friendship as you're likely to see on the big screen. Simplicity is not a bad thing, however. By taking this theme and building mythology, dangers and heart around it, it becomes far easier to root for our two heroes, and hope that their friendship survives the tale ahead. It is the characters that have the true depth. Arrietty as a person has more depth than a dozen Disney "Princesses", and is the type of spunky and self-sufficient female character all films should aspire to create. She also has her flaws, which only make her all the more human and lifelike. In short, she is the perfect hero around whom to base a story. Shawn isn't quite as fun to focus on; he's a little whiny and mopey, though you can blame much of that on his situation (he's got a life-threatening condition, after all). Still, given the chance to help a friend he more than makes up for his negative attitude, and does more than his share in building the strong bond of friendship between the two. The simplicity of the tale also allows debuting director Hiromasa Yonebayashi a chance to grow into his opportunity. The youngest-ever director at Gibli, the experienced animator does an excellent job, though that might not have been the case had he been given a more complex tale to tell.

"Heeeere's Johnny!"
If there's one thing I couldn't get fully behind with The Secret World of Arrietty, however, it's the voice-over work. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed some of the performances that the voice actors put forward, but I was raised with the idea that when dealing with foreign films, voices in the natural language with English subtitles are always preferable to English dubbing (thanks, Dad!). I've seen plenty of foreign television shows and movies in which I've far enjoyed subtitles to dubs, but Hollywood has it in their head that to sell the most tickets, they need to handicap foreign films by releasing only the dubbed versions of these titles to mass audiences, and as a result the emotional connection between the native speakers and their translations are a bit far apart. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but I wish I could choose to purchase a ticket to a subtitled film in the same way I can choose to see a film in enhanced 3D or plain old 2D, whatever my personal preference might be. As for the voice actors, they were up and down quality-wise, with a large disparity of ability between the haves and have-nots. On the haves side are Bridgit Mendler as Arrietty and Amy Poehler as her mother Homily. Mendler captures a perfect blend of innocence and strength, making Arrietty a character whose motivations are deep and complex. Poehler plays a typical neurotic parent, but her delivery is genuine and emotional even as she's given not a whole lot to work with. On the other side of the equation are the men in the tale. The worst is David Henrie, whose Shawn isn't nearly as interesting as he should be. Too dry and emotionless, Henrie could have done more to inject some humanity into his performance. Will Arnett is also lacking a bit of flavor, but in his case he's given even less to work with than Poehler, and Arnett is one of those actors who needs a little more prodding to produce his best work. Somewhere in the middle is Carol Burnett as Hara, a caretaker who is familiar with the Borrowers. Maybe if we had a better idea of who the character was supposed to be from the get-go, Burnett's performance wouldn't be too bad; however her lack of character development means she's suddenly thrust into the spotlight without us even remotely understanding her motivations.

That can't be a comfortable ride...
Where the film excels, surprisingly, is the superb animation and artwork throughout the entirety of the film. In a world where 3D animation has all but wiped out hand-drawn work (remember the failure of The Princess and the Frog two years back?), it is so refreshing to see hand-drawn artwork look at times as photorealistic as what sometimes takes weeks to render on a computer. There are no "ugly" shots in Arrietty, and sweeping shots of grassy knolls, gardens and lakes are wonderful to behold. Character designs are simple, recognizable (as Studio Gibli characters often are), and unique enough to easily differentiate from one another. But what truly stood out for me was the excellent sense of SCALE captured in the animation. When focusing on Shawn's point of view, everything seems normal, but when we shrink down to witness Arrietty's, the world becomes much more grand in our eyes, and the artists did a perfect job making us feel like we were right there alongside Arrietty and her family in their world. The attention to detail is staggering as well, not only in the tools the Borrowers use in their exploits, but in every single color scheme in the background. After an adjustment, you stop thinking of this film as "animated" and simply "exhilarating."

"I wish I knew how to quit you..."
By the time I sat down to write this, there really was no contest. The Secret World of Arrietty easily tops all of 2012's entries so far, becoming the #1 film of 2012. Anyone still unsure about the Japanese animation movement, I'd easily recommend this release as an entry point, as the sweet, smart story is easy to pick up and impossible to ignore. It might not be the best title out there, but if nothing else, it's inspired me to go back and check out the Studio Gibli back catalog, to see what I have been missing out on all these years. The next review you see from that studio on Hello, Mr. Anderson might just be a look back at Spirited Away.

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