Tokyo's Studio Ghibli has spent decades proving that there's more to Japanese animation than those old "Speed Racer" episodes, but Americans have proved resistant. Ghibli's films are always beautifully crafted, but also rather, well, Japanese. Even its biggest success here, 2001's Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," focused on a young girl working in an enchanted bathhouse; one of her magic possessions is a dumpling that causes vomiting.
The studio's latest, "The Secret World of Arrietty" (released through Disney), may translate a little better. It's based on the British children's book series "The Borrowers," about a miniature 14-year-old, Arrietty (the voice of Bridgit Mendler), who lives with her family under the floorboards of a regular-size human house. They survive by "borrowing" small items that nobody will miss -- sugar cubes are particularly prized -- and by staying well hidden. But on her first borrowing expedition, Arietty is spotted by a 12-year-old human, Shawn (David Henrie).
Fans of "Stuart Little" will appreciate the micro-details of "Arrietty," in which postage-stamp art hangs on tiny walls and a stickpin can become a mighty sword. The most entertaining sequence comes early, when Arietty and her taciturn father, Pod (Will Arnett), go rappelling off kitchen counters like mini-commandos. (Arietty's mother, voiced by Amy Poehler, mostly does housework.) The film's terrific villain, Hara, is a meddlesome housemaid whose shrill cackle comes from the great Carol Burnett.
Often, "Arrietty" creates a mood instead of having fun. Shawn is a sickly and lonely boy, and his feelings for this tiny girl border on an impossible yearning. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a Ghibli animator making his directing debut, excels at painting wistful afternoons -- fading light, gentle breezes -- but his action scenes are mostly low-key. It's an enjoyable and attractive-looking film, but a little of that "Speed Racer" energy wouldn't have been such a bad thing.
Star Talk: Bridgit Mendler's 'Secret' voice
Bridgit Mendler (Disney Channel's "Wizards of Waverly Place," "Good Luck Charlie"), the lead voice in the Disney-distributed animé film, "The Secret World of Arrietty," also sings the film's signature song over the closing credits. Here's a quick chat with the 19-year-old performer.
Did you ever read the Mary Norton "Borrowers" novels? They were written long before you were born, but they're still in print.
I didn't, but my grandpa did. So it was cool for me to do this and to see how her appeal, this idea that there are tiny people "borrowing" stuff from us, spans generations.
Were you a fan of animé before taking this latest job?
Oh, for years. I loved "Spirited Away" and "Kiki's Delivery Service."
You're used to spending time in a recording studio. How is voice acting like singing on a record?
You don't have to dress as the character. You sort of wander in there and do your thing. Singing and voice acting are both all about using your imagination.
How did you end up doing the song for the closing credits "Summertime"]?
I was working on an album when they offered me the chance to put a song in the movie. So I took them up on that and got one of my own songs into the film.
-- Orlando Sentinel