So I have this 5-yr-old niece who would love The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti). She’s got a twin brother and an older sister who take after their father — blonde, loud, socially charming, hyperactive. In contrast, this one is her mother’s child: dark-haired, quiet and imaginative, and prone to artistic focus for hours at a time. She would be entranced by the slow-moving beauty this film displays, because she’s very little, although not quite as small as Arrietty.I can’t help but watch Arrietty with a sense of regret. Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct this film, but his hand is all over it as screenwriter, production planner, and having the whole thing done via his Ghibli Studios. Miyazaki refuses to make those computer-animated, jacked-up, and over-caffeinated films that fill theaters. In fact, our theater prefaced this film with at least ten previews for kids’ movies — Brave, Mirror Mirror, The Lorax, and The Pirates (a new claymation film by the Wallace and Gromit people) most notable among them — all supercharged and moving so quickly you feel like you’re missing half the action. In contrast, Arrietty takes its time, lets you pay savor every beautiful, hand-drawn and colored shot. The down side: it can get a little dull. Also: the dialogue can get pretty creaky for people over the age of 5. But mostly: it’s not weird, like Miyazaki’s best films, such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001).

Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), a book I remember only loosely — but what a great idea for little kids. Arrietty and her parents are tiny people who live under the floorboards of a country house. They are borrowers — that is, they take little bits of things that the family will never notice, like a sugar cube, pins, tissues, a bit of string, and only things that allow them to survive. It’s a kind of big fish/ little fish symbiosis scenario premised on a couple of things: they must borrow without being seen, and if they cease to be secret, they must move away to a new house. What child wouldn’t want to think of a tiny family cobbling together a mirror house underneath your own, and stealing a postage stamp or a fish hook here & there to make life a little easier?

It’s a strange film to see as an adult, as it’s really more appropriate for small children. Arrietty’s parents are voiced recognizably by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, two of the funniest people in show business, but they’re weirdly low-energy and unfunny. It’s as if they’ve received mild lobotomies, which distracted me from the story — even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to think so much about the voices behind the characters. There’s also a prevailing sense of sadness in the tale that works together with the film’s slowness and visual wonder. Sadness because the boy Shawn arrives at the house to prepare for his upcoming heart surgery while feeling neglected by his busy professional mother; and sadness because Shawn spots Arrietty, offers her the gift of a sugar cube, and gradually becomes friends with her, making it necessary that the borrowers leave their lovely house for parts unknown.

Sadness is a strange mood to prevail over such a lovely film. I love what the Ghibli filmmakers decided to do in creating this world: although the characters big and small are all obvious cartoons, the backdrops are beautifully realistic, if idealized. When Arrietty climbs the ivy up the side of the house, the ivy is portrayed in all its colorful, light-filled, twisted majesty. The camera occasionally scans a meadow full of flowers and bugs. Or it scans upward to watch light coming through the leaves of a tall tree. For tiny children, such scenes must be even more entrancing than for adults — a reminder to observe the world around you with even more attention in case you might catch a glimpse of a tiny girl in a red dress, slipping amongst the leaves.

But for the rest of us Miyazaki fans, it’s beautiful yet disappointing and oddly tame. What I love about his sometimes ponderous films is the way they take strange turns, display strange and dark motivations, and feature female characters who must address scary situations they’re not really prepared for, either emotionally or physically. At times, as in Spirited Away, the girl is not even very likeable for a while. Considering that Arrietty clocks in at a tidy 94 minutes (speedy by Ghibli standards), it’s kind of boring.

As much as I found myself disappointed by the film, I’ve got it on my list for the next time I see my little niece, who has all manner of weird things going on in her little mind. She’ll love it. It might even be one of those films that hits her quiet 5-yr-old mind in that way that means something beyond the shape of the actual film. Because really, how do we know how film works the way it does? How do we know what will stick in our minds as meaningful long after the fact?

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So:  it’s hot here and I’ve got a minor sinusy condition (for which I am hereby calling out my friends’ 2-year-old as the one who infected me).  As I give myself the day to recouperate, all my windows are open, so the sounds and smells of a lazy Sunday are coming inside — cigarette smoke, teenagers showing off for one another, toddlers crying, people speaking loudly in many languages.  Hence:  I take to the sofa, and to children’s films.  Where best to find a compelling female lead for a leisurely day than the films of Hayao Miyazaki?

But Miyazaki’s films aren’t really for children, are they?  Unless, that is, you want them seriously spooked.  I’m hardly the wilting type when it comes to tough themes (after all, the “Sesame Street” I watched as a child has now been deemed unsuitable for children), yet I find such films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” very dark indeed.  They address such subjects as rage, corruption, helplessness, and the destruction of nature.  Their female heroines might possess extraordinary gifts and personal strengths (and even dweeby science geek inclinations, as in the case of Nausicaä), but they’re not simple beings either.  Chihiro, the 10-year-old heroine of “Spirited Away,” is sullen and fearful, and she whines for a good part of the film; even the powerful wolf-girl Princess Mononoke is willing to tilt the precious balance between nature and human beings — one of Miyazaki’s biggest no-nos — if it means saving her precious animal kingdom. 

When we first see Mononoke, she’s trying to help her wolf-mother heal from a gunshot wound — so she appears with her mouth and hands covered with blood, a serious-looking knife in one hand.  See what I mean?  This is heady stuff.

Miyazaki has rightly been celebrated as a serious environmentalist, but I think his films hold environmental disaster up as only one of the scary things we’re doing to the environment.  The wonderful “Nausicaä” (1984), for example, is indebted to the Reagan-era Cold War for its anxieties; the people in the Valley of the Wind find themselves at the center of a battle not just between humans and a terrifying insect world, but invading armies that feed on fear and false promises that bigger weapons might protect them.  Children in 1984 probably wouldn’t have missed the message that nuclear-style genocide is right around the corner.  In contrast, “Avatar” looks lite.

But for me the scariest subject treated by Miyazaki is all forms of human slavishness — the way leaders prey on human weaknesses and the predilection to become a follower.  He shows many different kinds of adults reduced to slaves.  Who can forget that early scene from “Spirited Away” in which Chihiro’s hungry parents, who wolf down their meals at a mysterious lunch counter, are transformed into pigs?  The former brothel girls transformed into ironworkers in “Mononoke”? 

One might suggest that Miyazaki is like many other creators of children’s literature — he shows children they’re right to have fears of monsters in the closet or under the bed, because the world is truly full of scary things.  With that as a given, he demands that his child heroines overcome their fears gradually throughout the film; yet for me his endings always feel a bit tacked-on in comparison to his fully-realized beginnings and middles.  It might have to do with his pervasive pessimism.  In a rare interview in 2005, he told The Guardian that “I am very pessimistic”:

“When, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can’t help but bless them for a good future.  Because I can’t tell that child, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.’  And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction.  So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.”

To make sure we all get that point, his films are also ponderous; accustomed as many of us are to the super-duper all-action style of American children’s films (“Cars,” “The Incredibles,” “How to Train Your Dragon”), one of the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest back in August said about “Ponyo” something to the effect of, “I loved it — but I was totally bored.”  I laughed at this, because it’s so true that his films simply refuse the gee-whiz speed of modern movies, just as they refuse to abandon the painstaking hand-drawn cells of an earlier century of animation.  (Hand-drawn!  with all the 3-D movies of the current day!)  

So I’d recommend watching his films again — with the expectation that you’ll be brought along at Miyazaki’s own pace, and that along the way you’ll experience everything from an extreme disorientation to feelings of crazy, uncritical love.  I cried with joy at the end of “Nausicaä” (but then, I’m slightly weakened with my runny nose).

“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations.  It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower.  I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level.  If I could do that I would die happy.”

 It’s an apt sentiment given his body of films.  I’m looking forward to more (and if my nose keeps dripping, I might give myself permission tomorrow, too).