I’ve been neglecting the backyard for many years now. Sure, I’ve mown the lawn; absentmindedly watched the family cat prowl over the grass; had a few picnics in the summer and played croquet. All right, so “neglecting” is a strong word. But the backyard is a very different place when you’re lower to the ground — a much more important place, a place of imagination, exploration and exercise. When we get bigger, we see less of it. This can apply to other areas of life as well. For this month’s double feature, I selected two movies made for kids that focus in on the little things, by putting us in the shoes of people for whom those things are much bigger.
We’ll begin with the newer of the two films, The Secret World of Arrietty, although the order is completely arbitrary. This 2010 film, released in America just last year, is a product of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, with a script co-written by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s an adaptation of the children’s novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The “borrowers” are a family of tiny people living beneath the floor of a house. Scraps, crumbs and discarded or lost knick-knacks from the full-size humans who live in the house are all that the borrowers need to survive. But it takes an expedition to get even a few supplies, and danger lurks everywhere. The most important thing is to avoid being seen by one of the giants, so naturally the young girl Arrietty, on her first borrowing, has the bad luck to be spotted.
For anyone accustomed to contemporary American animation, the serenity and maturity of this anime film can be shocking. For anyone who’s seen and appreciated movies like My Neighbor Totoro, this movie continues a fine tradition, with the reins passed on to first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi but without any dip in quality that I can detect, although I’m still a beginner to Studio Ghibli. I’ve seen the movie both in English and Japanese. I’m biased toward my native language, of course, but I’m always impressed with the voice casts that Disney puts together. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are reasonably famous, although I doubt they were the main reason anyone went to see the movie. They’re just skilled actors who understood that much of their work was done for them by the animators. The standout performance, however, belongs to Carol Burnett, playing the closest thing this story has to a villain. Her character also comes the closest to being ridiculous in a film populated with full-blooded characters who are treated with respect. This movie has moments of wonder and profound emotion that put a lot of other movies, animated and otherwise, to shame. It has state-of-the-art animation, too, immersing us in a new perspective in a completely engrossing way.
On the one hand, the kids of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (a movie whose title sums up the plot quite nicely) were, obviously, full-sized before becoming the victims of a shrink ray. Their tininess is not a natural state as it is for the borrowers. On the other hand, when shrunk, they are so minuscule that even Arrietty would be a giant to them. For Arrietty, an ant is a rat-like pest, but the kids in this movie ride an ant like a horse. The stylistic differences between the two movies are practically endless: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is a live-action fantasy/adventure film with a plot driven by a clear, specific goal. It’s thoroughly American, a tribute to B-movie sci-fi of the past. It’s also thoroughly Disney, with front-and-center lessons about parental neglect and familial misunderstandings.
When I judge HISTK today, I’m forced to recognize flaws that I wouldn’t have noticed when I watched the film as a child — the plot’s reliance on coincidence, the uneven performances of the child and teen actors, the broad stereotypes that pass for characterization (brains vs. brawn, I get it). Fortunately, that last one is overcome to some extent by the very good comedic performances of the adult actors who play the kids’ parents (Rick Moranis, Marcia Strassman, Matt Frewer and Kristine Sutherland). One of the best things about the movie is a running joke in which the two neighboring families alternately comment on how weird their neighbors are. Superficially, Mr. Szalinski is the nerd, Mr. Thompson is the jock, and high school never ends. But on a deeper level, they’re all a little strange, and they have that in common. That idea provides the through-line that makes the movie ultimately still work for me. But there’s another reason I still count this movie among my favorites. I admit I’m skewed in its favor because I grew up with it. The enormous Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie that the shrunken kids discover in the backyard and proceed to feast upon had me convinced for many years that those mass-produced cookies were the most scrumptious foodstuffs ever created by man. I no longer hold that opinion. The animatronic ant, however, remains a miracle — anatomically correct, as far as I can tell, and yet completely adorable.
I had second thoughts about writing on these two films after I watched them both recently. HISTK suffers a bit in comparison to TSWOA, there’s no denying that. Ultimately, though, I don’t think HISTK is a bad movie at all, and placing these two films side by side continues a theme I’ve been developing in these posts: movies that cover similar themes and ideas from very different angles. In a very general way, both these movies encourage us to take a break from our busy lives every once in a while and pay attention to things that usually escape our notice. These films, especially Arrietty, magnify the craftsmanship and beauty of small objects. They remind us how fascinating the insect world is. In that vein, neither film really takes advantage of the more horrifying possibilities inherent in the material, but I’m actually quite happy that both movies are completely spider-free. These movies put us under a microscope in a way, too, satirizing the way we can sometimes clomp through the world, oblivious to how big we really are. As for the films’ differences, beyond those already mentioned, HISTK is a straightforward metaphor about latchkey kids learning to take care of themselves in two-income households. TSWOA has much subtler spiritual, ethnic and ecological concerns. For any particular viewer, it should take a lot more work to discern exactly who or what is the “Arrietty” in his or her life, who or what deserves to be noticed, cherished and protected. If the viewer can see something of his or her own child in Arrietty, then these movies each have the same message for that viewer. Please don’t stop there, though. Only noticing the obvious would be an incredibly ironic thing to do in this case.