Almost without exception, I find foreign films which have the voices dubbed in English to be much less enjoyable than those in which we hear the original actors speaking in the original language and have English subtitles. I say “almost”, though, because there are exceptions, and Disney’s dubbing of the films of Studio Ghibli (including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Castle in the Sky) is usually quite good. That tradition continues with The Secret World of Arrietty, which has surprisingly been dubbed in English twice — once for the UK and again with different voice actors for the US.
Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) has recently developed a heart condition and needs to rest before an upcoming surgery. His recently-divorced parents are both too busy to take care of him, so he’s been shipped off to live with his Aunt Jessica (Gracie Poletti) and her housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett). Understandably, he’s feeling pretty sorry for himself, but his curiosity is piqued just a few minutes after his arrival because he’s sure that he saw the cat stalking a tiny little girl.
That girl was Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), and she lives with her parents Homily and Pod (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) underneath Jessica’s house. They’re called “borrowers” because they survive in large part by taking little things like sugar and crackers and whatever else they can scrounge from the humans (even though they never seem to give anything back, so it’s not really borrowing). Although they depend on the humans for their survival, they’re constantly frightened of being discovered because humans have historically not been kind to them, and if they’re seen, then it’s safest to just move away. And now they’ve just been seen.
Although The Secret World of Arrietty is cute, has a light, fun story, and is well animated, it deviates from other Studio Ghibli films (and their Disney adaptations) in a couple of ways. First, with a runtime of just over 90 minutes, it’s a full half hour shorter than most of the studio’s other films. I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all, since it’s able to fit everything it needs to into that runtime, it doesn’t feel either rushed or drawn out, and it’s a more kid-friendly length. Second, this is the first Studio Ghibli film in which I had any problem at all with the dubbing, with Will Arnett’s voice not seeming like a great fit for the animated character for which it was used. Although it was noticeable, it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film in any meaningful way.
I was also surprised by the degree to which Hara’s character had an irrational hatred of the little people, which had apparently been a life-long feeling even though she’d previously only heard stories about them. She characterized them as thieves, which is certainly accurate and perhaps they stole things they could have done without, but the borrowers’ extreme resemblance to humans made Hara’s persistent desire to eliminate them feel a lot like aspirations of genocide. But fortunately even if the film has somewhat dark themes, it never really reaches a point at which parents would have significant concern about whether it’s appropriate for their children.
Although my review of it may seem to have a largely negative tone, that’s probably because I had very high expectations for it going in based on my experience with many of the studio’s other films. I do think that it doesn’t quite stack up against the best of those, but it’s nevertheless a generally fun and well-produced film that should be enjoyable to people of nearly any age.