January 29, 2013: Betwixt Two Worlds

January 29, 2013

Arrietty_and_Sean_in-fieldSoooooo….take a popular 1952 British story based on updated Celtic faerie imagery, further update it to a modern Japan anime. Then, translate the Japanese into English (with well-known and talented British actors in the speaking parts.) Transport the film to America, where Disney (who now controls the film’s distribution rights) feels somehow compelled to translate the British-English into American-English! Confused yet? With all these transformations, it takes a truly substantial and entertaining story to roll with all the changes. Somehow though, “The Secret World of Arrietty” does just that!

arrietty_under_leaf.jpgStudio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is based on “The Brorrowers” by Mary Norton. “The Borrowers” were actually a series (a total of five) of books about small (about 5″) human-like creatures that live within, yet out of sight of, human households. Their name comes from their symbiotic habit of “borrowing”  materials that they need to live, from the “human beans” they live among, at the same time trying desperately not to be seen by those “beans.” The heroine of the story, Arrietty Clock (14 years old), lives with her father Pod, and mother Homily underneath the kitchen floorboards of a cottage in the English countryside. The Clock family have stories of other “Borrowers” but the reader/viewer sees no evidence of them for some time. Unlike the Celtic faerie creatures, “The Borrowers” do not have any magical ability, and seem to be just very small versions of the “beans” they live with. Their world is fraught with danger, not only from animals like cats and birds, but that a discovery of them by the “beans” would mean their expulsion into the wild, with all the dangers that represents.

Arrietty_and Sean“The Secret World of Arrietty” begins with the arrival of a young (human) boy (also about 14 years old) Shawn, at the cottage. Shawn is ill with a heart condition, from which he believes will soon die. Upon arriving, he notices Arrietty in the field outside of the house. On her first “borrowing” (an implied right of passage) Arrietty is seen, and mildly confronted, by Shawn. Once having met, they begin to learn more about, and ultimately trust one another, while both try to keep the secret of “The Borrowers” away from the other “beans” of the cottage.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is only the latest film version of Mary Norton’s popular book. There was a 2011 TV movie; a 1997 film; a 1992 TV movie all called “The Borrowers.” I managed to find and watch the 1973 TV movie starring Eddie Albert as Pod, and this one comes closest to the book. This version also has, (while dated by 2013 standards) some pretty decent FX for its time.

While a few things managed to  twist the experience, I loved a lot of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” First, Studio  Ghibli’s films just get more and more visually detailed and beautiful! Second, the background sound is well done, often emphasized as it would be heard, made by large objects to tiny ears. I loved the instrumental music pieces and they were largely harp, very well suited to the faerie-like imagery. Most of the songs were very well suited, as well.

ForestI intend to write another article on Japanese-English translations as the problems of these are manifold. But really, what was the justification of the American-English version? Disney…c’mon you had fantastic voice talent with Mark Strong playing Pod and Saorise Ronan as Arrietty in the British-English version. That’s the version that I wanted to hear! Despite popular and talented voice talent of the likes of Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett, the American-English version was voiced alternately too flat or too shrill. A pop-song tacked onto the end-credits sounded totally inappropriate. Curious, I researched it and I found out it was sung by the young woman voicing Arrietty in the Disney version. This then, was just  shameless Disney promotion of their talent, and was totally unnecessary and discordant. The filmmakers left a large part of the original story intact, but their changes were just…confusing. They chose to introduce the character of “Spiller” in this story, when he doesn’t appear until the second “Borrowers” story. I haven’t read this one yet but I highly doubt he looks Ainu, like the “Spiller” from this film does. Either way, this choice seems odd, discriminatory, and just plain wrong.

Sean_in_fieldThe other change…the biggest and worst…was to make Arrietty and the boy Shawn the same age. In the book, the “bean” boy is 1o years old to Arrietty’s 14 years old. This is a huge psychological/emotional gulf. I know that in “…Ariettey” they were trying to set up a Tweeny-Twilight knd of romance there, but it just comes out distracting. Witness the scores of IMDB-ers who question the possibility of a “romance” when they consider the two characters’ large size difference. If a plot point takes you out of the film, it’s just not worth doing it. It is especially harmful, as the “romance” takes  a lot of the strength from the main character of Arrietty. In the book, she is clearly more mature, self-possessed.  and emotionally sound than the younger boy, and she often corrects his rather petulant behavior. Norton seems to be saying that a smaller physical size and being female does not mean you are not in control of your life. Losing Arrietty’s strength for “romance” is not a good, nor wise, trade for the character.

However, there is still much to like about “The Secret World of Arrietty” not the least is an interesting retelling of a perennial favorite. As the only Studio Gihbli film to sport a “G” rating, this makes it a good one for the kids.I leave it to the parents to de-program the Disney-fied parts. Oh…and to read the originals to the kids at bedtime.

[My thanks to the Hudson Public Library for supplying not only the film, but the Mary Norton original book.]


One comment

  1. Hi Steve, Just so,you know, Faeries are real…we have had them living with us for decades…we see their ” footprints” in the snow.

    We leave treats out for them twice yearly , in hopes they will look kindly upon us…

    So far , so good

    keep the recipes coming!

    Xo. Kathy Avery

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