Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: "The Secret World of Arrietty" offers a flawless Studio Ghibli experience

The films of Japan’s Studio Ghibli resonate with the heart more powerfully than any body of work I have ever encountered, and their latest film to reach American shores – “The Secret World of Arrietty” – is no exception.  It is a thoughtful, visually lush, deeply emotional work of art, the best film I have yet seen in 2012.  It failed to make a box-office dent upon its February theatrical release, but I hope that wrong will be righted on Blu-Ray.  Is Disney’s high-definition release worthy of the film, though?  Find out in my in-depth review of “The Secret World of Arrietty” on Blu-Ray after the jump…


“The Secret World of Arrietty” is an unspeakably beautiful little film, one that connects with the heart and mind on every possible level.  Having watched the films of Studio Ghibli since I was little, I should no longer be this astonished by the house that Miyazaki built, but I cannot help myself; they are the best at what they do, and each film they release is a revelation.  “Arrietty” is based on Mary Norton’s classic novel “The Borrowers,” but writer Hayao Miyazaki and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi make the material their own, infusing it with unparalleled visual creativity, wonderfully endearing characters, and a poignant, underlying sense of melancholy that speaks to a special, intangible place in the hearts of every viewer.  For children or for grown-ups, I feel it is the best film to hit screens in 2012 thus far, and I doubt it will be surpassed for some time. 

When it comes to Ghibli, I am always amazed, first and foremost, by their storytelling, for Miyazaki and company avoid the conventions and pitfalls that so often destroy lesser films.  I can imagine a horrifying American version of “Arrietty” where the title character’s parents try to quash her free-spirited nature, the humans are portrayed as evil, and Arrietty is berated by her kind for falling in love with one of them.  Yonebayashi’s “Arrietty” does none of this.  Arrietty is a marvelous, strong-willed protagonist, and no more needs to be made of it than that.  She has a pleasant, loving relationship with her parents, Pod and Homily, and there is no obnoxious family drama to speak of.  She befriends a human, yes, and while this turns into love, it is not romance.  Their love is far less obvious and far more meaningful.  There is a human antagonist bent on capturing the Borrowers, which is the closest the story strays towards convention, but even this works in the film’s favor, for it adds a necessary weight to the emotional finale. 

Most importantly, I love that Miyazaki and Yonebayashi are willing to forego a plot-driven structure in order to simply spend time with these characters, to watch the Borrowers operate in their wondrous little world and let the relationships develop organically.  This is where the film’s true beauty lies.  Arrietty, a Borrower, and Sean, a human boy living in the house her family borrows from, are drawn together by the sadness in their lives.  Arrietty loves her parents, but they are the only other Borrowers she has ever known, and that loneliness has become hard to ignore.  Sean, meanwhile, has a fatal heart condition, and has come the countryside for rest and relaxation while waiting for a surgery that has little chance of saving him.  Sean’s greatest desire is to be needed, to find someone to whom he isn’t a burden, and Arrietty simply wants a friend.  Together, they fulfill the empty places in the other’s soul.  Their relationship develops in the subtlest, most beautifully restrained of ways, each scene they share producing smiles and tears in equal measure.  Their final exchange, in particular, goes for an emotional wallop unsurpassed even by the greatest of Ghibli movies.

The animation is just as breathtaking as the characters, and while I could waste your and my time searching for the proper adjectives to describe it, such efforts would be futile.  Watching “Arrietty” is akin to visiting a lovely art museum; the colors, the attention to detail, the simplistic yet fluid character work…all of it is gorgeous to a degree unseen in American animation, and the crazy thing is, this isn’t even First-Tier work for Studio Ghibli.  Some of the Miyazaki-helmed movies, like “Spirited Away” or “Ponyo,” are even more lavish than this.  Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a better musical score than Cecile Corbel’s, even in the world of Ghibli.  Her compositions never pander or manipulate, but find a poignant aural connection to the emotions of each scene, enhancing every moment of the experience. 

I have only scratched the surface of what “The Secret World of Arrietty” has to offer; the rest is for you to discover, and discover it you absolutely should, for the film will foster your heart and mind, not just your senses.  This is what sets Ghibli apart from the world of American animation, and this is what makes “Arrietty” my favorite cinematic experience of 2012 to date.  It should not be missed.  Film Rating: A

Video Quality:

NOTE: Not a Blu-Ray screencap
You want to know why Blu-Ray Discs are worth the investment?  Watch any given thirty seconds of “Arrietty” in high-definition, and you’ll immediately understand.  Descriptors like flawless and immaculate don’t even come close to describing how good the film looks on Blu-Ray.  Simply put, the 1080p transfer is a perfect recreation of the film’s original artwork, and given how breathtakingly gorgeous the animation is, that makes for an absolutely revelatory high-definition experience.  Every line, every brush-stroke, and every detail, large or miniscule, comes through just as clearly as it would if one were looking at the original cels the day they were painted.  It’s the color, though, that really blows me away; Ghibli uses just about every different color and hue imaginable in their work, and each of them are beautifully vibrant on Blu-Ray.  Scenes of nature, with astonishing greens, blues, yellows, and reds, are windows into another world. 

In theatres, I had the fortune to watch “Arrietty” screened with a 4K digital projector, and it obviously looked wonderful.  The highest praise I can give to the Blu-Ray is that it looks every bit as good as that theatrical projection, albeit on a smaller scale.  This is the bar all Blu-Ray transfers, at least for animation, must be judged by.  Video Quality: 5/5

Audio Quality:

With any animated film, especially one of this caliber, there’s always an expectation that the visuals will overshadow the audio.  Not so with “Arrietty.”  The film’s sound design is lush, precise, detailed, and enveloping, and it’s captured perfectly in two lossless audio tracks on Blu-Ray: The original Japanese language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and the dubbed English language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.  They are, for all intents and purposes, identical save for the voice acting; both offer perfect home theatre versions of the film’s immersive soundscape, and are stirring listening experiences.  Given the size of the main characters, the whole world of “Arrietty” has a large scope to it, and the sound does as well; a cat rustling through the grass is a huge, earthquake style event, and it gives the subwoofer an excellent workout.  But the small moments are full of little sonic detail as well, and even the tiniest, quietest sounds can be heard as though they are actually occurring in one’s living room.  Throughout, there is a glorious sense of atmosphere created through the audio.  This is Blu-Ray sound at its very, very best.

As for which language you should chose, this is the rare circumstance where I will tell you to go either way (or better yet, listen to both).  The Japanese version is, of course, wonderful, as it is the original produced version of the film.  But the English dub is wonderful in its own right, something I’ve never been able to say about one Disney’s Ghibli dubs before.  Their insistence on miscasting random celebrities in major roles has always irked me, but “Arrietty” is dubbed with authenticity and passion.  The actors leave their egos behind and simply inhabit these characters.  Amy Poehler and Will Arnett voice the parents, Homily and Pod, but you won’t recognize them; they disappear into the parts, particularly Arnett, who has clearly studied the deep-voiced, stern-but-fair Japanese archetype his character belongs to.  Bridgit Mendler, meanwhile, is an absolute revelation as Arrietty; she’s free-spirited, strong-willed, and enthusiastic, but in a grounded, endearing way.  As Sean, David Henrie does something few voice actors would be willing to do: he puts energy on the shelf in favor of soft, gentle melancholy.  It works wonderfully; he and Mendler have a beautiful chemistry, one that feels raw and intimate to a degree no other English dub has ever achieved. 

Either way you listen, “Arrietty” sounds perfect.  And in a nice touch, the language of the credits changes depending on which track you select, preserving the original presentation of both versions.  Audio Quality: 5/5

Extras and Presentation:

I don’t like Disney’s practice of plastering the names of actors in the dub cast all over the cover art, but other than that, I’m quite fond of the Ghibli template they’ve come up with for the Studio’s Blu-Ray releases.  Focusing on blue and gold colors, the packaging is stylish, respectful, and makes for a very nice series of spines on the shelf.  As with all Ghibli releases, “Arrietty” is housed in a standard 2-disc amaray case, with a cardboard slipcover.  In addition to the Blu-Ray, a DVD copy of the film is also included; while it contains both the English and Japanese audio tracks, it lacks most of the Blu-Ray’s bonuses. 

As for the features on the Blu-Ray itself, they are not extensive, but they are plenty for my tastes.  Ghibli films speak for themselves, and though I would always appreciate making-of material or discussions with the creators, I don’t mourn their absence.  The Disney Blu-Ray is, for the record, missing several extensive behind-the-scenes features present on the original Japanese Blu-Ray.  I won’t lie: I wish Disney hadn’t skimped in this department, but again, I’m not going to get upset over it. 

The major attraction here is the film’s Original Japanese Storyboards.  Since Miyazaki and other Ghibli directors plan their movies not through scripts, but through extensive storyboarding, it’s a Ghibli tradition to include the feature-length film in its rough storyboard form.  It’s a very cool tradition; as with many Ghibli works, these storyboards were hand-drawn by Miyazaki himself, and they are a treat to look at.  I will probably never sit down and watch the whole movie this way, but I like to know they’re there.  They can be viewed in English or Japanese, but they cannot be seen as a picture-in-picture track, which is a real disappointment. 

Along with the storyboards, the only significant bonus is a series of Original Japanese Trailers and TV Spots; again, if you’ve ever bought a Ghibli disc, you know what these look like, and with Japanese marketing being so different from what we’re accustomed to, they’re an illuminating watch.  Other than that, we get two music videos – one for Cecil Corbel’s “Arrietty’s Song,” which is cool, and one for Bridget Mendler’s “Summertime,” which is lame – and a “Making of Summertime” featurette.  Hey, if it gets the kids to watch Ghibli, I’ve got no complaints.

Like I said, not an exhaustive batch of bonuses, but the essentials are there, and for now, that’ll do just fine.  Extras and Presentation Rating: 3/5

Closing Thoughts:

As with all of Studio Ghibli’s best work, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a film that grows exponentially in its power with each successive viewing.  Disney’s Blu-Ray presentation is truly the perfect way to watch it over and over again.  With a masterful A/V presentation, equally stirring English and Japanese audio tracks, original credits for both versions, and the storyboards and trailers, this is an excellent and affordable archive of “Arrietty.”  Whether you are young or old, I can’t recommend this release highly enough.  “Arrietty” deserves a spot in your collection. 

1 comment:

  1. The littlest details. It's what Ang Lee calls "slices of life that add up to an epic feeling."

    "Hardest thing to do," but that's the magic of Studio Ghibli.