If the premise of this Studio Ghibli-produced tale of tiny people living beneath the floorboards sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Mary Norton's young-adult novel The Borrowers, which has already been filmed multiple times for both film and television. The 1997 version starring John Goodman is probably the best-known of this perennial kidhood favorite, but The Secret World of Arrietty is by far the most magical and striking we've seen yet, due in no small part to the magnificent 2-D animation from Ghibli's animators. Although not directed by Hiyao Miyazaki (though he executive-produced and co-wrote it), the film retains the look and feel of the Spirited Away master's best work, allowing for huge emotions amidst a world of Lilliputian scope.
Arrietty (Mendler) is one of a family of four-inch-tall "borrowers" (so called because they "borrow" small items – a sugar cube, some tissue, etc. – human beings won't miss) who live within the walls and beneath the floors of the house belonging to elderly Hara (Burnett). Their borrowing "missions" are fraught with danger – Hara's Totoro-esque housecat is understandably curious – but, all in all, it's a comfortable life that children will instantly identify with. Things change when teenage Shawn (Henrie) arrives to stay with his Aunt Hara. Shawn suffers from an unnamed heart disease and is scheduled for some dicey surgery in just a few days. Before long, he catches sight of Arrietty. Alarmed, Arrietty's parents Pod (Arnett) and Homily (Poehler) make plans to flee Hara's home within a home, despite Arrietty's protests that the ill Shawn means them no harm.
Most, if not all, of Miyazaki's trademark storytelling tropes are here despite the source material. There's the old country house, the stricken young person who discovers a world beyond everyday "reality," and the child's-eye view of the world in which the most banal objects and settings appear rife with either danger or ecstatic possibility. All combine to make this particular "borrowing" all the more enchanting. The animation, a gorgeous blend of bewitching watercolored backgrounds and poignantly rendered characters, is, as ever, beyond reproach.