It’s all about the ladybugs.
Animators at Japan’s Studio Ghibli, making children’s movies since the 1980s, have earned the adoration of young and old, worldwide.
They have done it not by making breakneck-paced, slapstick-ridden movies full of fart jokes, but by focusing on the flow of life. The movies actually take the time, once a scene is over, to linger in the moment and focus on a ladybug crawling across a leaf and taking to the sky.
The studio’s other trademarks — richly detailed backdrops; strong, brave young characters; and hugely imaginative storytelling — are evident in classic works such as “Grave of the Fireflies,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away.”
Their latest is the beautiful, gentle “The Secret World of Arrietty,” directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Legendary Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced.
The new movie is adapted from Mary Norton’s 1952 novel “The Borrowers,” a story that also provided the basis for a loud, vulgar, live-action comedy in 1997. But “The Secret World of Arrietty” couldn’t be more different, or more refreshing. It’s even gentler than Miyazaki’s last outing, 2009’s “Ponyo.”
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a “borrower,” a tiny person living with her mother and father (voiced by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) underneath the floorboards of a beautiful house in the countryside.
Her father takes her up to the house for her first “borrowing,” a sugar cube and a piece of tissue. Unfortunately, one of the full-size human “beans” spots her.
But the “bean” Shawn (David Henrie) — a sad, sickly boy who has come to stay with his aunt and her snooping housekeeper, Hara (brilliantly voiced by Carol Burnett) — is different.
Shawn and Arrietty slowly become friends, despite her father’s mistrust of humans and Hara’s zealous determination to catch the little people long-rumored to be living in the house.
The movie conjures many magical moments, ranging from a crow stuck in a window screen to a tubby, short-tailed cat forever stalking the little folks, and an awe-inspiring first glimpse of a beautiful dollhouse.
Burnett, the movie’s unexpected secret, throws herself into the loony Hara and comes up with big laughs, somewhat declawing the story’s villain.
Indeed, the movie is so serene, some American kids may find themselves squirming a bit like ladybugs. But most will be caught up in its beautiful spell, immersed in great storytelling at its finest.
The Secret World of Arrietty ★★★½
Starring Voices of Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett
Written by Keiko Niwa, Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes