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I saw The Secret World of Arrietty in the theater last night. I had low expectations going in, but unfortunately they were met. While on the surface this is a lush film that vividly brings alive the small world of Arrietty, it is Ghibli lite: all of the vivid coloring, enjoyable character animation, carefully pleasing scene presentation, believable if idealized characterizations, and charming atmosphere, without the substance.
Like all of their previous films not directed by the two founders, Arrietty is directed by a first-time feature director, and clearly suffers for it. Ghibli is still flopping around frantically trying to find its next generation of directors. Two decades on, it feels like we're re-treading what happened with I Can Hear the Sea (1993), when Ghibli tried to bring in a new face - Tomomi Mochizuki seemed like the perfect fit - but wound up creating a bland and forgettable teen drama that had nothing of the fire we expect from the two founders, only the shell of a Ghibli appearance.
They tried again with the very talented Hiroyuki Morita and The Cat Returns (2002), this time in the fantasy vein, but while the film was pleasing and somewhat different in style, it was paper-thin and only served to underline how few directors were even close to the level of the two founders. The next attempt in 2006 with Tales from Earthsea was in my estimation the studio's most disappointing and even repugnant chapter. Bypassing the many talented directors in the industry for Miyazaki's son was a repudiation of the philosophy of craft the studio stood for, as if they had given up on industry-fostered talent and were placing their last bet on an absurd belief in hereditary talent straight out of Francis Galton. Ironically, the most successful attempt was Whisper of the Heart (1995), whose director died not long afterwards.
Nobody will ever be able to replace or replicate Miyazaki. The sooner Ghibli realizes this, the better. Arrietty was a film that seemed perpetually on the verge: On the verge of going somewhere, and on the verge of attaining Miyazaki's level. But it never did. Given a situation with many similarities to Totoro, at no point did I feel any sort of magic or wonder as I did at every point of Miyazaki's film while the protagonists ran around exploring their new home and the surrounding forest. Everything here was sullen, dull, dreary. There was not a moment of dynamism in the film, of surprise, wonder, any sort of explosion of built-up dramatic tension. It was too one-note.
As in Totoro, youthful coming-of-age and awakening were contrasted with illness and fatality. But Totoro was spontaneous, where Arrietty feels calculated and forced. The scenes with the boy talking about his terminal illness were more awkward than moving. The backdrop of divorce and uncaring parents was hinted at in passing in a way that felt like nothing more than a backhanded attempt at a stock Ghibli storytelling convention.
The all-important animation, while lush, never felt immediate. The planning of scenes felt limp, without any unexpected or creative angles or compositions. The characters were generic Ghibli in a way I've never felt before. Ghibli characters always have a that identifiable Ghibli look, but here they were bland to look at in a way that I never felt they were in previous Ghibli outings. Take Hara, for example. Her face wasn't stylized in a way that I found interesting or believable. The old lady who bakes the cake for Kiki in Kiki's Delivery Service felt like a far better rendered and realized spinster, her design and behavior informed by reality just enough to make her feel like an individual. Hara felt too generic, without personality. She felt like a caricature without feeling real, there only because they needed a baddie to capture Homily. It wouldn't be Miyazaki if we didn't simultaneously sympathize with her, but she seemed so shallow and one-dimensional.
The only sequence of animation that stood out to me as feeling particularly interesting was the bit where Homily is captured, and I was disheartened to discover upon looking into it later that, surprise, surprise, it was done by Shinji Otsuka, the guy who in Ghibli film after Ghibli film can be relied upon to provide the one scene that stands out as having the most fun character animation. There were certainly nice enough other moments of animation, like the crow scene, but the exuberant animation felt wasted on a scene that didn't have any dramatic impact, that felt like it was just hitting a milestone in the Ghibli template of necessary pacing tempo shifts.
The whole didn't gel into a compelling world. That is Miyazaki's unique genius. He effortlessly elides elements in a way that doesn't leave you wondering. I came away from Arrietty wondering why this and that had been brought up without any followup. The pacing feels halting and the atmosphere curiously empty, whereas even throwaway scenes in Miyazaki's films always have something to pull you in and carry you along with the flow. I don't think it's unfair to compare the film to Miyazaki, because that's clearly exactly what they set out to achieve. Plus he planned and co-wrote the film.
Speaking of the crow, he was one of the threads that led nowhere. He seemed poised to be such an interesting character, with that great window attack scene (which actually dragged on a bit too long), but then he disappears without a trace. The cat was a jumble too. While hardly original, he could have been a fun character, but his character wasn't consistent at all. Why was he lunging with bloodthirsty eyes at Arrietty one moment only to suddenly turn into Lassie at the end. Also, in that close-up shot of him near the end, he was drawn as this big benevolent furry blob that bore an uncanny resemblance to Totoro. The Jimsy-like Spiller who was introduced as the Arrietty love interest never did much of anything. It's too little too late having him give Arrietty a berry during the credit sequence.
My favorite thing about the film was the backgrounds. They clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into the backgrounds. The backgrounds carry the film. They're what keep the audience interested. More than any previous Ghibli film, Arrietty seems reliant on the background art to create atmosphere and convey information about the world inhabited by the protagonists. The problem is that the backgrounds communicate more than the script and the animation, and as a result, the film feels somewhat static. Throughout the duration of the film, I found that most of my time was spent with my eyes wandering around the screen absorbing the details in the backgrounds.
But I feel like the Grinch saying all this. Believe it or not, I actually liked Arrietty. It's a hard film to dislike, unlike Earthsea. Everyone in the theater seemed rather pleased by the film. It's not bad or unpleasant at all. It's just harmless. It probably set out to be low key, and its slow pace sets it apart from the other Ghibli films in a good way; it has its own atmosphere without striving too much for the fantasy affect of Miyazaki. Perhaps that is the direction to go to eventually discover a new Ghibli voice. In tone it's perhaps closest to Kiki, but less fluffy and sentimental.
What is the right answer to the question of whether Ghibli should continue copying the Miyazaki template, or strike out in a different direction and potentially wind up doing something that nobody wants to see from Ghibli? In all fairness, the former seems like the only possible answer.
One last thing: I was disappointed by the credit sequence. They did the same thing they did in Ponyo, alphabetizing the names. Where's the progress? I expected the letters of every staff member's name to be randomly scrambled and placed into a large block of text. It's so vain of them to list the names of the people who worked on the film.