Despite the odds, two-dimensional drawings of cute little critters scampering across a movie screen are not a dead art form. They're just not a very American one anymore.
Back in 1995, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the future of cel animation—Pixar's Toy Story had brought computer animation to feature-length cartoons so suddenly and so perfectly that most everyone feared for traditional hand-drawn art. And, sure enough, with the scent of new fortunes to be made, every Hollywood studio jumped onto the computer-animation bandwagon. The result was DreamWorks' Antz and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner firing his company's longtime animation crew in favor of hiring CGI programmers. Despite those ignoble acts, is it really any wonder that computer animation overtook hand-drawn animation? It reinvigorated the entire industry.
After Disney's apex of success with The Lion King in 1994, the studio churned out mediocre efforts like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules, and then deservedly forgotten epics like The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Other studios couldn't even muster that much creativity. Frankly, the future of animated features as a whole was in far more danger from its own lack of inspired storytelling and artwork than from impertinent computer jockeys. Pixar reminded everyone, even its own corporate benefactor Disney, that stories matter first and foremost. (And dazzling eye candy certainly helps.) Since that tide turned, we haven't seen many hand-drawn features from Hollywood, but we haven't missed them much, either.
In Japan, however, cel animation is still a thriving art form—principally because its industry happens to be led by a genius animator named Hayao Miyazaki whose company, Studio Ghibli, creates cinematic magic. Its latest effort to be released in the U.S., The Secret World of Arrietty, may not benefit from Miyazaki's personal direction, but it stands as yet more proof that good old-fashioned, hand-drawn "2D" animation is still every bit as viable a technique as computer graphics. Just as long as you have great artists behind it.
Arrietty is an adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, and as such it's more of a familiar tale than Ghibli's typically unpredictable fantasies. Although the setting's been moved to western Tokyo, the 60-year-old novel's storyline is for the most part unchanged: A family of tiny people—Pod, his wife Homily, and their daughter Arrietty—live under the floorboards of a house owned by an elderly woman who is caring for her great nephew, who isn't well. The boy accidentally sees Arrietty, and they form a friendship, but one that endangers the small family of "Borrowers."
First-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (previously a Ghibli animator) imbues Arrietty with much of the painterly style that the studio is known for, using lush backgrounds of verdant countryside and allowing for quiet moments of natural beauty. Whereas American animated features are usually in a hurry to inundate their presumed young audiences with images of nonstop action lest they get bored, Arrietty and other Ghibli films go in nearly the opposite direction: They take their time to create characters and settings. Conflict—the raison d'être of any Hollywood production—wafts onto the scene only after we've been totally immersed into a fantastic new world. Likewise, Arrietty does not intend to wow us with an incredible battle between two worlds, big vs. small, as a more typical adaptation might have attempted; instead, it simply wants us to see our world from a different viewpoint.
The pleasures of Arrietty arrive in the precise observations made by its expert animators: the way a single drop of rain hits a dry piece of concrete, how a cat expresses disdainful acceptance with its eyes, the shimmer of sunlight over a meadow (in the summertime). But those are only the familiar sights that we may already have in our memories, beautifully brought to life onscreen. The true immersion here lies in how the animators conceived of the ordinary world as seen by 2-inch-tall people. Like mice, they live in the spaces between walls and floors that we never see. To get by, the Borrowers do just that—taking small bits of things from the "human beans'" household, like fibers from a piece of tissue or sugar from a cube. Outside the house is a vast jungle, its thick vegetation hiding places unknown. (Beyond its beautiful illustrations and life-like movements, Arrietty also creates the Borrowers' viewpoints through its sound design—the trodding of humans sounds more like mastodons plodding along on the tundra.)
While those used to Western movie standards of fast action may find Arrietty lacking in high stakes, fans of Hayao Miyazaki may miss his unique vision. In watching films like Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, or My Neighbor Totoro, you feel as if you have truly entered a different world, one that hasn't already been thoroughly explored in other stories or other movies. These are places where unpredictable things can happen. The Secret World of Arrietty does not quite attain that sense of adventure, but it is nevertheless a lovely place to visit—one that may offer Hollywood executives a few reminders of a lost art.