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February 23, 2012

'Secret World of Arrietty' doesn't rate with Miyazaki classics

Hayao Miyazaki is the recognized genius of Japanese animation, the mastermind behind such films as "Ponyo," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro."

"The Secret World of Arrietty," however, is only tangentially a Miyazaki film. It was produced by Studio Ghibli, the studio he helped found, and Miyazaki has a co-writer credit, but he did not direct this one, and it doesn't rate with his classics.

Based on Mary Norton's children's classic "The Borrowers," "The Secret World of Arrietty" is certainly not without its strengths.

Hand-drawn with a fine eye for detail (love the occasional ladybug strolling through scenes), the film is visually inventive and charming, and avoids many of the mainstream U.S. animation clichés. There are no talking animals, no Elton John power ballads. Though clearly made for children, it doesn't talk down to kids.

"The Secret World of Arrietty" tells the tale of a family of 4-inch high "borrowers" — little people who survive by borrowing small items (like a sugar cube) from the regular-sized humans whose houses they live in.

Arrietty, voiced by Bridgit Mendler ("Lemonade Mouth"), is a precocious 14-year-old who is quick to ignore her parents' commands to stay out of the garden and out of view of the big folk.

This becomes a problem when a curious but sickly boy moves in with his elderly aunt, catches a glimpse of Arrietty and threatens everything the borrowers hold dear.

Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") and his real-life wife, Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation"), voice the parents, Pod and Homily. Arnett plays the role completely straight, almost tersely, which seems appropriate. Poehler's character, however, is almost constantly hysterical.

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