Our thanks to Master Cat! Alvaro Rodriguez for this classic beat sheet on a classical story.
With a unique sensibility that is as much mystical as magical, the animated films of master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have garnered a worldwide audience thanks to a decade-old partnership with Disney and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2002). Unapologetic in their willingness to probe darker subject matter with an intelligence and clarity seldom seen in Hollywood animation, the films follow classical patterns of story and provide a telling example to screenwriters looking to plumb deeper for more resonant tales that do not dumb things down for the kids. Based on a much-adapted novel by Mary Norton, The Secret World of Arrietty charms with its simplicity and sense of wonder.
Screenplay written by: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Logline: On the eve of a major surgery to fix his weak heart, a boy returns to his ancestral home only to discover a miniature girl and her family living under the floorboards. When he tries to help her, he risks exposing her secret world to adults who would destroy her family’s way of life.
Genre: Buddy Love
The elements of a classic Buddy Love story are here: star-crossed adolescents from two different worlds risk the balance of both when they dare to cross the threshold between them. There’s also a strong Rites Of Passage element as both Shawn and Arrietty learn about growing up as they transition through adolescence in one magical summer and understand what it means to have a home and family.
Opening Image: Adolescent Shawn, suffering from a heart condition, is brought by his aunt to her childhood home to convalesce under the care of the frumpy housemaid, Hara. As the image pans down from the sky to the city, the house he’s coming to seems to exist in a kind of wild Eden, hidden within the metropolis.
Theme Stated: “The world is a dangerous place for a Borrower.” Miniscule Arrietty is a “Borrower,” a four-inch tall girl who lives with her mother and father in the hollows of the house Shawn has come to stay in. Her father warns her of being seen by the Beans (“human beings”), who will destroy their secret home and way of life if discovered.
Set-Up: As Shawn arrives, he catches a fleeting glimpse of Arrietty scuttling through the overgrown yard and wonders if it’s a dream. Meanwhile, Arrietty doesn’t see the danger as she flits about in the outdoor garden gathering flowers and leaves, one step ahead of the housecat, Nina.
Catalyst: Arrietty prepares to go on her first “borrowing,” a rite of passage to collect needed items for survival: a sugar cube and tissue paper.
Debate: Arrietty’s father is cautious but determined; her mother is frightened for her daughter. Arrietty departs with her father, discovering the world of the “beans” and encountering a dollhouse that embodies the perfection of a home. Her father warns her not to take anything from it, because its loss will be conspicuous: Borrowers only take what they need and what no one will miss. Arrietty finds a pin – an ordinary item made extraordinary – her first treasure. She and her father secure the sugar cube.
Break into Two: As she and her father try to get the tissue paper, Shawn, sick in bed, spots her. Though she hides behind the tissue screen and Shawn assures her he will not divulge her secret, she knows she’s compromised her family. Arrietty and her father sneak back into the recesses of the house, but lose the sugar cube in the process and return home having failed.
B Story: The B Story tests the theme – will Arrietty follow her heart and trust the Beans, will she follow tradition and retreat to the hidden world, or will she find some middle path? For Shawn, the questions are the same: will he hide himself from the world and give up on life, or will he find a new way?
Fun and Games: Shawn places the lost sugar cube on a grate near the basement. Arrietty thinks it might be a trap, but a kind note from Shawn tempts her to think it’s a peace offering. Her father warns her not to touch it and broach the line between Borrowers and Beans.
The next day, she sees the sugar is half-devoured by ants. She takes what’s left and climbs the outside of the house to Shawn’s window to return it to him, refusing his help while still hiding behind the screen of a leaf. He begs to see her, assuring her he’s friendly. Just as she’s about to cross the windowsill into his room, a blackbird swoops down upon her. Shawn saves her as the bird is caught in the window screen.
Shawn hides Arrietty behind his back as Hara violently swats the bird away, but Arrietty flees from his grasp.
Her father finds Arrietty on her return to their hidden home and she admits she had contact with Shawn.
Midpoint: Accepting her failure, Arrietty puts her family in the position of having to move to prevent further discovery and their demise.
Bad Guys Close In: Hara becomes suspicious the stories she’s heard about little people are true.
Shawn reveals he’s scheduled for an operation he may not survive — and that his parents are divorced.
Shawn’s aunt reveals her grandfather built the dollhouse for the little people that hid in the walls, but it was never used. “Perhaps there were too many memories of the wishes that didn’t come true,” she laments.
While out scouting for a new place to go, Arrietty’s father is caught in a rainstorm and injured. He is rescued by Spiller, a “wild boy” Borrower who hunts alone. He tells them of other Borrowers he has seen on his journeys and they are given hope that other Borrowers still exist and that they are not the last of their kind.
In a misguided attempt to help them, Shawn replaces Arrietty’s kitchen with the decked-out kitchen module from the dollhouse.
All Is Lost: Hara discovers a miniature teacup and knows Shawn has seen and has been helping the little people.
Dark Night of the Soul: Arrietty comes to Shawn to tell him goodbye for the last time. Shawn knows it’s his fault she has to leave.
Shawn reveals his heart condition to Arrietty and his fatalistic approach to life, even suggesting that she and her family as the last of the Borrowers are destined to die off. Arrietty tells him that sometimes you have to stand up and fight for things worth fighting for. “As long as we have each other, we have something to live for.”
Break into Three: Hara discovers the hiding place where Shawn has moved the kitchen module and traps Arrietty’s mother in a jar and hides her in the pantry. Pest control arrives to weed out the mystery rodents.
Finale: Shawn and Arrietty team up to find Arrietty’s mother. Arrietty uses all the skills she’s learned from her father in her search. Shawn discovers Hara has locked him in his room. Shawn and Arrietty escape through the window and hunt for Arriety’s mother. Surprised to see Shawn out of his room, Hara unwittingly gives away Arrietty’s mother’s location. Arrietty rescues her mother using the pin she found on her first outing. Shawn moves the kitchen module back into the dollhouse so when the pest control guys open the hiding place, it’s empty. Hara gets a bigger shock when she discovers the empty jar. The pest control guys think she’s crazy, talking about little people. Spiller guides Arriety and her mother and father away from the house, but Arrietty and Shawn have one last moment together in which they exchange gifts and promises to remember each other for as long as they live.
Final Image: In a coda, Shawn reveals he survived his operation (bookending his “broken heart” opening) though he never saw Arrietty again. Meanwhile, Arrietty and her family drift downstream to their next adventure.