From Arrietty’s point of view, a “borrower’s” life is pretty spectacular. After all, when you’re a person about the size of a grasshopper, everything in the world of the “human beans” takes on a whole new scope. A leaf is big enough to be an umbrella, a thimble can be a flower vase, and a bean’s kitchen, well, that’s a place of treasures and giant wonders as vast as any mountain range.
Arrietty is ready to explore it all. Of course, her dad always reminds her that she has to be careful and stay out of sight. As long as they walk behind the walls and beneath the floors so the beans don’t know they’re there, everything will work out fine. And to that end, the tiny borrowers just take little things from the beans’ houses. Only the things they need to survive. Nothing more! A discarded cracker here, an insignificant sugar cube there.
It was only recently that Arrietty’s father took her out on her first borrowing expedition. It was sort of a rite of passage since she’ll soon be 14. And she even discovered a stick pin lost along the baseboard—a sword by any other name! Truth be told, though, her first borrowing was something of a disaster.
Because she was spotted by a bean.
It was the sickly boy bean named Shawn who laid eyes on her. The same one who might have caught a glimpse of her in the garden when he first came to stay with his aunt. He didn’t act shocked at the sight of her. He actually whispered to her as if he knew of the borrowers all along. But, still, this is a very bad thing!
Father always said, “Once a borrower’s been seen, a human’s curiosity can’t be stopped.” So even though this bean seems nice and kind and gentle, Arrietty may have just opened the door to disaster.
Shawn has an undefined “weak heart” condition and will soon have an operation that will hopefully cure his malady. But if nothing else, his current weakness helps him understand the fragile world and existence of his tiny new friend. “When I saw you,” Shawn says. “I just wanted to find a way to protect you.”
On the other hand, illness has also left Shawn with a sense of hopelessness—for himself and his new friend. This dark side of the boy’s personality, though, doesn’t sit well with Arrietty. She tells him, “Sometimes you have to stand up and fight for the things that are important.” She’s right. And he comes around to it, eventually telling her, “You taught me to be brave.”
That’s his balancing lesson. Arrietty’s comes in a different form: When she sees rats running on the basement floor, her first instinct is to attack them with her new stick sword. But her father warns, “Sometimes it’s best not to go looking for danger.”
Arrietty comes to realize just how skilled her borrowing father is and speaks in awe of his abilities. And when she laments being seen by a bean, Dad returns her praise. “We all make mistakes,” he tells her. “I am very proud of you. A lesser borrower would have panicked and run away.”
Even though the borrower family is forced to leave its home, Mom assures Arrietty, “We’ll make another wonderful home, the three of us together.”
Accepting the presence of tiny beings who borrow from bigger ones as merely make-believe and not mythical or magical, there is only this one prayer that hints at any sort of spiritual perspective: Arrietty’s mom worries about her daughter and husband setting off into the world of the beans and cries out, “Oh God, please help them.”
A growling cat and a squawking crow snap at the diminutive Arrietty. And when the crow flies in to attack the young girl, poking its head right through a window screen, Hana, Aunt Jessica’s maid, beats the bird’s head with her slipper till it pulls itself free.
Arrietty’s mother is imprisoned in a glass jar by a bean. The borrower family talks of a relative who was eaten by a toad. A passing borrower named Spiller helps Arrietty’s father home after the older borrower falls and injures his leg. Spiller pulls a dismembered cricket leg out from under his cloak, offering Arrietty a taste.
Mild name-calling only: Hara brands people “idiots.”
We see bottles of wine in Aunt Jessica’s pantry. When Hara cries out that she’s found the “little people,” Aunt Jessica asks her, “Are you sure you didn’t find the sherry again?”
We’ve covered this indirectly already, but it deserves a bit more attention: Even though Arrietty’s parents tell her to avoid human contact at all costs, she disobeys and befriends Shawn.
A big part of the reason Shawn is living with his aunt is because his parents recently divorced and just don’t have time for him.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on a children’s book called The Borrowers, a popular title originally published in 1952 by British author Mary Norton. Studio Ghibli—the creative force behind colorful Japanese fare such as Ponyo and Spirited Away—has now fashioned its version of the tale, wrapping grass-level visuals in a beautifully soft and eye-pleasing animation and setting them in modern day Japan rather than Norton’s original Victorian England. (The original Japanese creation, titled Kari-gurashi no Arietti, was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The American-English version is directed by Gary Rydstrom.)
The resulting film is a gentle imagining packed with fun characters and washed with all the colors of the rainbow. We get to see its world through the eyes of two very different young friends: a sick and emotionally wounded young human boy and a coltish 4-inch-high borrower teen who wears a pin at her side like a sword.
Through their whimsical meeting, these friends teach us that life can be difficult and filled with disappointment. But it’s also rich with friendship, adventure, family love and unexpected beauty. You can reject hope and push aside dreams or bend with the winds of change, cling to your loved ones and fight for what’s important. You can give in or be brave.
Will the youngest viewers catch all of that when they watch this simple and often slowly paced tale? Probably not. But at the very least they’ll be left with a sweet story of friendship, a new perspective on their backyard garden and maybe just a dash of wonder.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.