26 June, 2012

Beyond Brave: The Secret World of Arrietty

Brave is being treated as some new, unexpected, long awaited event. It's a film. Intended for children. Marketed and distributed by Disney Pixar. With a female lead. With a mother daughter relationship. If you take away the word Pixar and add the word Ghibli, this happened in February too. The difference is hardly anyone went. If there is such a pent up desire for alternatives to the Disney Princess machine, what kept parents away from The Secret World of Arrietty? This film opened to almost precisely ten percent of Brave's opening. (U.S. numbers).

If you saw Brave I urge you to consider The Secret World of Arrietty. Do you want voice over stars? How about Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett? Good reviews? How about a 94% at Rotten Tomatoes? Strong female lead? Check. Troubled but resolved mother / daughter relationship? Check. Fight over traditional values versus a new way of living in the world? Check. Princess? Sorry. No Princess here. Asexuality? No, Arrietty has an age appropriate curiosity. Prince? Nope. Not even close. Her love affair is doomed from the start, such as it is. Strong message of social responsibility? Check. Feminist viewpoint? Check. Total American box office? 19 million. Brave made that on it's opening day.

Face it people. You like the Princess. You want the Princess. It's the Princess you turn out for.

Back to Arrietty. (A local elementary school was so taken with this film they canceled lessons for the day and organized a field trip to the cinema.) Our entry into Arrietty's world is the narrator, Sho. Sent to live with his grandmother prior to heart surgery, Sho spots Arrietty in the grass. Arrietty lives in a two parent family where her father treats her as a fully capable person. Her mother is housebound and fearful, causing friction with Arrietty who strains at the rules her mother imposes.  Arrietty's father is training her to provide for their family, with her mother's support. She is expected to do all he does. She faces the same potentially fatal dangers he does, she gathers the same provisions he does. Arrietty is praised for her strength but chastised for her lack of caution. She's a tween, it's what they do. They rebel.

Pod (her father) and Homily (her mother) have warned Arrietty all her life against mixing with humans. It's not xenophobia, it's hard earned experience. Arrietty is a brave and self reliant character. She makes herself a weapon and uses it in her own defense. She prides herself on her ingenuity and physical abilities. Merida climbs a rock face? Arrietty climbs a similar distance in a treacherous storm. When the new human (Sho) arouses her curiosity she investigates. This leads to repeated fights with her mother. Despite Sho's best intentions Pod and Homily are right. He endangers them. Homily is taken from the family and only Arrietty can save her. In doing so she realizes that her mother's rules are based on hard experience and pragmatism, not caprice. By disregarding her mother, Arrietty has cost her family their comfortable home. She says goodbye to Sho as her family is forced to leave everything behind. In doing so Arrietty urges him to fight for his own life, to follow his own path as she will. She embraces the necessity of her parent's rules but does not adopt their bigotry.

Look Arrietty, I'm not white!
But your dad trusts me!
Arrietty is not without flaw. There are some slow pacing moments (like Brave) and a subtle racism in the depiction of Spiller, a Borrower from another area. Because he is a forager he is shown in stereotypical 'savage' attire. But Spiller is also their salvation. Where her parents thought they were the last of their race, Spiller proves differently. He offers to be their guide to a new home and shows a strong attraction to Arrietty. She treats his interest casually, her mind is full of Sho and her family. Alongside the messages of self reliance and family respect is a strong rejection of materialism. Arrietty is told time and again to take only what she needs. While they beautify their home it is through their own craftsmanship and recycling. Goods they have not made are a trap they must never accept. It is better, in her family's mind, to live independent lives through their own labor than risk being enslaved in luxury. They pride themselves on repurposing items to meet their needs.

So here was a strong female lead with a complex mother / daughter relationship. It had the Disney brand, big name voice actors, and a full advertising campaign. America stayed home. Don't tell me these characters don't exist. Disney has tried to bring you a number of female leads from Ghibli. Mononoke was even a Princess. Maybe next time we will talk about Sen from Spirited Away or Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service. I know you think "Well, if they can bring them over as imports why can't they produce these stories in America?" Why should they? You don't go to see them.

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