The Secret World Of 'Arrietty'
February 24, 2012

The Secret World Of 'Arrietty'

From the imaginative world of internationally acclaimed screenwriter and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, whose animated classic “Spirited Away” won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, comes the uniquely inspired and “The Secret World of Arrietty.” Following the international success of Miyazaki’s hugely popular worldwide hits “Ponyo” and “Spirited Away,” Studio Ghibli’s latest masterful achievement takes audiences beyond the world of the easily seen and deep into a domain populated by tiny people whose existence is thought to be myth.
Based on the acclaimed children’s book series “The Borrowers,” by Mary Norton, “The Secret World of Arrietty” is an animated adventure that explores the extraordinary world of very tiny people who reside peacefully and undetected beneath the floorboards of a country house.

The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and produced by Toshio Suzuki. Gary Rydstrom directed this English-language version of “The Secret World of Arrietty” from a screenplay written by Karey Kirkpatrick. The producers include Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. The original Japanese screenplay was written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa.


“The Secret World of Arrietty” begins with adventurous 14-year-old Arrietty (voice by Bridgit Mendler), who comes from a traditional family in which mother and father (voices by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett) assume their time-honored roles and children grow up under their parents’ supervision. However, they are a family of tiny people who live under the floor of an old house and survive by “borrowing” the things they need from human beings. These tiny people live carefully so as to never be seen by humans. Their way of life, which is full of wisdom and inspiration, has much in common with the way humans used to live.

Most of the things they borrow are raw materials. The family works together to modify the materials to suit their needs. Tiny people do not practice magic to achieve their borrowing objectives. They do it the old-fashioned way, by getting what they need with their own ingenuity, using ropes and duct tape to climb up and down the walls and furniture. The story starts on an ordinary day in the lives of these tiny people. Then, Arrietty, a curious and sensitive girl, meets a human boy. Their friendship develops, but in the end, they are forced to go their separate ways. The tiny people must flee to the wilderness in order to be free from the dangers of callous humans.

Hayao Miyazaki elaborated on the original narrative written by Mary Norton by creating a love interest for Arrietty. He had created boy-meets-girl stories before, but this one is different. Arrietty goes to borrow a sugar cube one day and is seen by the human boy, Shawn (voice by David Henrie), who is sickly and has come to stay in the house for a week. Arrietty and Shawn become friends, but they know they aren’t supposed to spend time together. The house, where Shawn’s mother grew up, is old. It is owned by the elderly Sadako and tended by her equally old housekeeper, Haru (voice by Carol Burnett).

Tiny people and human beings have lived together in this world for a very long time without troubling each other. But Shawn’s goodwill alters the balance between them. Once he discovers the “borrowers,” he can’t help but be intrusive, and their peaceful existence begins to crumble. “Human beings are rich in material things, but our hearts have fallen into poverty,” says Japanese director Yonebayashi. “Tiny people, by contrast, remain relatively poor but have spiritually affluent lives. Suppose tiny people actually existed on Earth. Which lifestyle would you choose? And which species should survive?” the filmmaker asks. 

Looking through the eyes of such tiny people, everything turns out to be brand-new, even when you are in the same old world. “I felt it would make a fascinating animated film to see tiny people use their small bodies and ingenuity to survive,” Hayao Miyazaki says. Yonebayashi concludes, “I hope audiences find warmth in their hearts from experiencing this vivid new world of tiny people in ‘The Secret World of Arrietty.’”


“The Secret World of Arrietty” was released to Japanese audiences in 2010. With more than 12 million viewers, it became the highest-grossing film at the box office that year and went on to win the Animation of the Year Award. It was then released in Asia and Europe, where it delighted moviegoers in many countries. Now, it was released in North America.

To achieve the elevated level of technical sophistication expected from both Studio Ghibli and Walt Disney Animation Studios, renowned producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (“War Horse,” “The Adventures of Tintin”), who previously worked with Walt Disney Animation Studios on the English-language adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s award-winning animated international box-office hit “Ponyo,” were asked once again to bring their skills to the English-language dubbed version of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” Ardent admirers of the imaginative work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, as well as the source material novels by Mary Norton, Kennedy and Marshall were delighted to offer their talents to this latest masterpiece. 

As Marshall says, “We always look for a good story and this is a wonderful one.” Among the most admirable aspects of “The Secret World of Arrietty” are the beauty and purity and innocence in the film. “It’s a modest, quiet, humble film,” Kennedy says of her response to the movie. “I enjoy the scaling differences between Arrietty’s tiny world and the one we’re familiar with. I think the message of the film is, whether you’re big or small, there is a beautiful world around us and we should all try to live together in peace and have an optimistic view of the world.” Marshall adds, “It’s a movie about underdogs and operates with a quiet tone and undercurrent of environmentalism, which is a theme that pops up quite often in Studio Ghibli films.”

For many technical reasons, creating an English-language adaptation of “The Secret World of Arrietty” that would live up to the monumental popularity and triumph of the Japanese-language version was a great task for the American filmmakers. “The biggest challenge was to sync the actor’s voices with the characters, as they are now speaking English instead of Japanese,” Marshall says.

Because of his success working with Studio Ghibli as director of “Tales from Earthsea,” seven-time Academy Award–winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom (17 Oscar nominations including his sound design work on this year’s Best Picture nominee “War Horse,” as well as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Titanic,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) was engaged to direct “The Secret World of Arrietty.” “Gary has done sound design on many of our movies and has recently started to direct projects for Studio Ghibli and Pixar,” Kennedy adds. “Gary has a good character and story sense, and with his experience with sound design, he was able to handle the technical challenges.”

“There’s really no other job quite like working on a Studio Ghibli film for English-language audiences,” Rydstrom says. “Normally, when you record voices for an animated film, you’re recording before there’s much animation. You’re discovering the story and building up the script and the characters and the dialogue as you go along. With ‘Arrietty,’ we had to fit everything into the existing story. In this case we took a translation of the Japanese and Karey Kirkpatrick wrote a unified script in English.”

This was an incredibly tricky endeavor. Of course, the dialogue had to fit the syllables that matched what had been originally spoken on screen. “We were doing our version and fitting it to animation that had already been done,” Rydstrom explains. “Our actors weren’t speaking anything like what the sound is in Japanese. We had to have the English sentences be fun and make sense and be dramatic, but everything had to fit into the length of the syllables of what was originally spoken on screen.”

Even for prolific screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles”), this was a complicated endeavor. He had to not only maintain the integrity of the story but also find words that fit the lip movement of the characters when the voice talent dubbed their roles. “A writer wants to bring his skill set and experiences to any writing project,” Kirkpatrick says. “But I was limited because the story had already been told. Any changes that I might want to make for an American viewing audience was harder because a lot of the choices were already made. Therefore, my mission was to bring clarity that fit within the existing story but to make it play for American sensibilities without destroying what Studio Ghibli does so well.”

Kirkpatrick was personally selected by producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall to write the English-language screenplay for “The Secret World of Arrietty.” As Marshall explains, “Karey is one of our favorite family writers. His scripts for ‘Over the Hedge’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’ made him the perfect choice to adapt this story.” Kirkpatrick found that the assignment was more daunting than it originally seemed. “When I first sat down to write, I thought, Wow, this is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” the writer says of his experience. “I had to construct sentences in ways that I might not normally construct them. It became a matter of adding words and articles and adjectives to fit the length and meter of the characters’ mouth positions. Of course, once I got my head around it, it ended up being fulfilling.”

The Kennedy/Marshall team was earnestly respectful of the filmmaker’s original vision and sensibilities especially with regard to East/West cultural differences. To assist director Rydstrom, Studio Ghibli sent it’s resident expert Steve Alpert, who had previously worked with Rydstrom on “Tales from Earthsea,” to be it’s liaison. Although an American by birth, Alpert speaks fluent Japanese and lives in Japan. Among his many creative and technical services to the project was comparing the Japanese and English dialogue for subtle differences and to make sure that the translation was as close to the original intent of the story as possible.

“We have a very elaborate translation process at Ghibli, and it’s really difficult for a lot of reasons,” Alpert says. “First of all Japanese and English are diametrically opposite to each other. And Japanese sounds are generally a lot longer than in English, with words ending with an open vowel, which means there’s an open mouth position on the animated characters. We were dubbing to an existing picture that was drawn for Japanese voices, so we had to be able to fit the mouth movements on screen with the English dialogue. It’s a really rigorous process, but Karey Kirkpatrick made it sound really beautiful.”

Working on the English-language adaptation of “The Secret World of Arrietty” was a labor of love for all involved. As screenwriter Kirkpatrick says, “Everybody had respect for Studio Ghibli and the material and we all wanted to create something magical. The animation is stunning and the great amount of time that the artists spent on atmospheric things such as crickets hopping and raindrops falling off of leaves is absolutely amazing.”

“It truly is a magical film,” director Rydstrom agrees. “It’s enthralling to think that there are beings like us, but much smaller and living in our world, but we don’t see them very much. We do know that there’s life in our world just underneath our feet that we might not be aware of.”

Kathleen Kennedy concludes, “It’s an adventure into the unknown, an insight into a culture so similar yet so mysteriously different than our own. The visuals, artwork, animation, sound and music all work together perfectly to create the kind of movie we love to bring to audiences of all ages.”

Established in 1985 by Tokuma Shoten Publishing, Studio Ghibli is an animation studio based in Japan and founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Tokuma Shoten. Ghibli is unique among Japanese animation companies, most of which depend primarily on TV series and original animation videos for income. Because it focuses on large-scale feature films, Studio Ghibli makes around one film every two years, most of which have been directed by either Miyazaki or his colleague Isao Takahata. The studio has won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for “Spirited Away,” and has enjoyed considerable box office success both at home and abroad.

Image credits: Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. © 2010 GNDHDDTW.