Based on Mary Norton’s children’s book, The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arietty (2010) tells the story of Arrietty Clock (Bridget Mendler in the U.S. version), a young Borrower, who lives under the floorboards of a Japanese country house. Arrietty eventually befriends Sho/Shawn (David Henrie in the U.S. version), a human boy with a heart condition since birth, who is living with his great aunt, Sadako/Jessica (Gracie Poletti in the U.S. version). When Sadako's maid, Haru (Carol Burnett in the U.S. version), becomes suspicious of the floorboard's disturbance, Arrietty and her family must escape detection, even if it means leaving their beloved home.
The taglines for The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) tell us the rules governing the Clock family, a trio of borrowers, the four-inch tall people who live anonymously in the human family's residence, borrowing simple items to make their home: “Do not be seen by humans. That's been the law of children of the under-floor.” They also, however, introduce the stance toward animal rights and environmentalism showcased by the film. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and produced by Studio Ghibli, The Secret World of Arrietty brings the environmental themes and vivid natural landscapes prominent in the Ghibli films alive for popular Japanese, UK, and U.S. audiences.
The film most blatantly espouses an animal rights theme. In the context of Arrietty, most humans see borrowers as pests, as unwanted animals that must be trapped, exterminated, or banished from the home. Because of this bifurcation between the human (“bean”) and borrower world, Arrietty’s father, Pod (Will Arnett in the U.S. version) warns her to stay away from all “beans,” even those who seem friendly.
Arrietty connects with Shawn from the beginning of the film, when he inadvertently sees her gathering herbs and flowers in his new home’s garden. Shawn has moved in with his Aunt Jessica to prepare for surgery for his weak heart, since his divorced parents are too busy to care for him, so he is immediately established as a sympathetic character. During Arrietty’s first borrowing mission, too, Shawn sees her when she and her father attempt to borrow a tissue from a box. Although she remains calm, she drops a sugar cube by accident.
When he returns the cube, Arrietty’s father again warns her to stay clear of beans, an argument that becomes even more powerful when Haru discovers the Clock’s under-board home because Shawn reveals their “door” by accident when he replaces the Clock’s kitchen with a more elaborate one from a dollhouse his grandfather had built for his mother and, possibly, another borrower family. Haru believes borrowers are pests who must be caged or exterminated because they steal from the home like rats, so she calls an exterminator company and captures Arrietty’s mother (Amy Poehler) as proof of the borrowers’ infestation.
Ultimately Shawn and Arrietty successfully free her mother and remove all evidence of the borrowers’ home, but now, since rules regarding “bean” and borrower interaction have been broken, the Clocks must leave and find a new home. As Arrietty tells Shawn, “Human beings are dangerous. If we’re seen, we have to leave.” Although Shawn and his aunt sympathize with the borrowers’ plight, the existence of “beans” like Haru, who see borrowers as pests that must be eliminated, maintain the bifurcation between borrowers as “animals” and humans. Our sympathy for the Clocks, though, is reinforced because they look and act just like humans, providing them with evidence for borrower rights putting them on equal footing with ourselves.
The environmental message of the film is emphasized by the pastoral setting of the home and the vivid natural environment surrounding it that is so effectively recreated via both hand drawn animation and computer generated imagery. As Manohla Dargis of The New York Times explains, “The world outside, unsurprisingly for Ghibli, is lush and inviting, by turns a dense jungle and an impressionistic landscape washed in gradations of green flecked with red, yellow, and purple.” In this fertile landscape, “characters pop against a painterly meadow.”
Although the Clocks connect with the natural world more effectively than do the”beans” by utilizing its herbs and, in the case of Spiller (Moises Arias in the U.S. version), grasshopper legs and fur clothing, they too battle its elements and other creatures, including a crow and multiple insects. In The Secret World of Arrietty, the Clocks are constructed as more human than animal despite Haru’s reaction, so even in the photorealistic visuals of the film, as Dargis explains, “the human touch deepens the story’s themes of loneliness, friendship, the need for home and for being, literally, held," demonstrating the dominance of the film’s animal rights rather than environmental bent.