I think the biggest difference between Arrietty's family and most people, aside from cats and birds being able to swallow them whole, is that Arrietty and her dad use grappling hooks way more than the average person. And they don't have public education or anything. But these details are mostly byproducts of culture.
For all intents and purposes, Arrietty, her mom, and her dad, are just like you and me only smaller.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Arrietty: Bridgit Mendler
A's mom: Amy Poehler
A's dad, who talks like an inflectionless Christian Bale Batman: Will Arnett
Sweet kid: David Henrie
Sweet aunt: Gracie Poletti
Bitter, old-man looking housekeeper: Carol Burnett
Caveman?: Moises Arias
The Caveman in the "People" section is Spiller.
Here's my question: what's the deal with Spiller?
To put this in context, I'm going to talk about Arrietty again.
There is no language barrier. Arrietty and her family call things by the names we call things. Arrietty's mom talks about the ocean. Pots are pots. Pins are pins. A kitchen is a kitchen.
When Shawn tells Arrietty he's having an operation on his heart, Arrietty understands what this means. It's not like she goes "What's an operation?" As far as I could tell, she fully understood the implication of the word "operation". And what a heart is.
What we see is a level of sophistication: in Borrower language, in Borrower lifestyle, and in Borrower eating (buttered bread! vegetables in soup!). They are, given their circumstances, as modern as any family.
Then we have Spiller:
1. The bow and arrow
2. The man-skirt
3. The cave bear pelt cape
4. The DBZ hair cut
5. The wrist warmers
6. The slightly visible war paint on his cheeks
7. The totally invisible cricket leg he whips out soon after demonstrating with the bow
If the outfit isn't an indicator of the "Caveman" quality of Spiller, he grunts when he speaks, and when he offers Arrietty and her family some of his cricket leg, the reaction is "Oh, he doesn't know better, he's uncivilized, but sweet."
I'm fine with all of this. I think he looks cool. There's nothing wrong with having a caveman character. I'm just trying to figure out where he fits. I mean, we don't see other Borrowers. Which is part of the plot: Arrietty desires contact with her own "kind". So, at the end of the film, her setting off with her family and Spiller is a big deal, because she's going to meet more Borrowers.
But, what are the other Borrowers like? Are they like Arrietty and her family? Or are they like Spiller? Is there some middle ground? Are they more advanced?
Why is there such a discrepancy between Arrietty and Spiller?
A theme of the film is family.
Arrietty's parents educate her, about how they (the family) live, about the mythology of Borrowers, about the world. Arrietty can read English. She speaks English.
Shawn's parents are not around. They're divorced. And the mom has gone off to work, left Shawn with his aunt. She isn't there to educate him, to teach him, to support him, to love him. While his aunt is there, she is hands-off, especially when compared to Arrietty's family. Shawn reads. And reads. And reads. Because there's a disconnect from his parents, from his family, he is seeking a connection from others--the cat, books, nature, but especially Arrietty (a sort of amalgamation of a fairy tale character and nature). Shawn is soft-spoken, less boisterous than Arrietty. We can argue this is due to his heart troubles, and his personality. But there's a positive correlation in this film between "strength of social personality" and "family support".
So if Arrietty is at the maximum end of this positive correlation, Shawn is in the middle. Which leaves Spiller at the bottom.
Spiller has no family. He grunts. He dresses like a caveman. He's the least acclimated to civilization. Also, if you look, Arrietty is the most capable in the home. Shawn has other people do things for him, but does some things on his own. And Spiller is totally self-sufficient, but self-sufficient in an Old World way: he can shoot a bow and arrow, he is strong, he has knowledge of the land, and he can navigate a boat/tea kettle. But if you had him sit down at a for dinner and asked him to use utensils and have table conversation...uh...There's no signs of Spiller possession domestic skills.
In terms of superficial plot points: the point of Spiller is: he represents the fact more Borrowers exist, he offers an escape for the family, and there's hints of him being a potential romantic interest for Arrietty. Him being a caveman has NOTHING to do with any of this. It doesn't fit with the plot of the movie, at all. Which is fine.
To be clear: I'm not condemning this seemingly arbitrary characterization. I made a fuss about the fact that Christopher Orr made a fuss about the "paddle boat in a desert" not being explained in Cowboys & Aliens. These random elements are logically defensible because, in almost every case, we can't argue WHY they could not occur.
In a movie where gold-seeking, spaceship soaring aliens attack 19th century cowboys, there's probably some sort of explanation for how a paddle boat ends up in the middle of a desert. Like...the aliens could have carried the paddle boat, because it looks like a fancy boat and was probably full of gold and the aliens want gold so they took the paddle boat (just like the honey badger would if the honey badger wanted a fucking paddle boat), and for whatever reason they made it to that point in the desert, dropped the boat, and seized gold from it and left it. Is that what happened? I HAVE NO IDEA!! But it's a plausible situation, and you can't deny it because you weren't fucking there.
So. I can't condemn The Secret World of Arrietty for having a caveman for a character for no obvious reason other than "he looks cool, right?"
Spiller makes no sense, from a purely plot perspective. He could have been dressed and characterized in any way. He could have been Elvis and carried out his same function: proves more Borrowers exist, offers an escape, potential romantic interest.
When we look at the thematics of the movie, Spiller makes total sense.
The Secret World of Arrietty makes the case that a person's mentality, character, and physical health depend on how connected a person feels to other people.
Arrietty's mother and father are nice people but one-dimensional. The mother is almost always dramatic. The father rarely changes his tone of voice--he always sounds like he's a stadium announcer announcing a visiting team's batter. When the movie ends, neither of them, mom or dad, are different.
Arrietty, Shawn, and Nina (the cat) are the only characters that grow. And they're the only two characters in the movie that form new connections with others. Arrietty with Shawn and Nina. Shawn with Arrietty. Nina with Arrietty. Is it weird to anyone else we see more growth from a cat than a majority of the characters in the film?
The aunt remains nostalgic. And Hara is a bitch throughout.
Look at the connections going on here.
A's mom and dad only have each other and Arrietty (they don't connect with Spiller).
The aunt treats Hara as help, and spends her time discussing people who aren't around.
Hara doesn't have a positive connection with a single person in the movie (and she's the villain of the movie).
Spiller has rudimentary connections with people and is capable, polite, but ultimately ill-equipped for "proper" civilization (his loss of family has truncated his social development). When he sees Shawn, Spiller growls and takes aim with his bow and arrow. This is understandable: "beings" are the enemy, Spiller thinks Arrietty in danger, but assesses the situation and decides Shawn isn't a threat--so it's not like Spiller is an idiot...nonetheless he is still depicted as reactive, primitive. At one point Arrietty tries to have a conversation with Spiller, Spiller doesn't converse (reminds me of Drive).
To me, this Connection-Development dynamic is the most interesting aspect of Secret World because it's never mentioned. The only way to even realize this is going on is to actively pursue it. (Or read about it).
This is, in my opinion, a terrific use of theme.
And Spiller is the crucial part. Without Spiller being who he is, if he were "normal" relative to every other character in the movie, we wouldn't ask "What's the deal with Spiller". And, as far as I can tell, this is the only "in" to recognizing the Connection-Development dynamic, because Spiller stands out and his out of place appearance begs the question "Why does he look out of place?" Without Spiller, we lack the "minimum" example of "lack of family equals lack of development". We need Arrietty, Shawn, and Spiller to complete the graph.
Really, when we say "lack of family", we mean "lack of love". With marriage typifying love and children embodying it. Characters characterizations are, in this movie, I argue, byproducts of their parents' love.
Is it any wonder then that Arrietty is healthy, determined, passionate, caring, active, sweet?
That Spiller, whose family is dead (they are dead, right?), seems out of time, simultaneously confident and nervous--we can imagine, if a character truly is a reflection of his or her parents, his parents were also strong, but their death cemented Spiller, he ceased to develop, which is why he can't count, or speak in complete sentences, yet the parental characteristics were also crystallized, so Spiller is strong, confident, hands-on, helpful and caring.
And that Shawn, whose parents have divorced--divorce being a rupturing of love, an end to love--is dying? And is only healed when he is loved by another? Is it any wonder that his problem was his heart?
The argument we can make from all of this, the life lesson of the film, the one we can apply in our own lives, is, then, that we transform those we love by the simple act of loving them.
Did I Like It:
Yes. At first, not really. In typical fashion, I didn't appreciate the movie; then I struggled to write about it and avoided writing about it because, what the hell am I going to say about it?; then I started to write about it; then I understood things I didn't understand; then I liked it more. This happens a lot.
At first, I just thought the animation was nice, and the film had some nice moments. But after writing this, I like the movie better. Theoretically at least. I don't know how anxious I'll be to watch it again. I like the themes, and moments, and the visuals, but not really the plot? Like, I'd be more inclined to watch it on mute?
Side note: I don't know if the animation is jumpy and seems stop-motion at times (especially early on) or if the $1 theater I saw it in sucks a lot. I'm guessing it was the theater because that theater sucks (a lot).
One of the reasons I hated the plot so much: Hara. I don't think the character is necessary. Well. Okay. With my thematic argument, Hara is really tragic. Because she wants to capture the Borrowers so people believe her that things go missing not because of her but because of another party (the Borrowers). Hara wants to clear her name, to prove that she isn't a thief, or inept. She is angry that people doubt her because then they don't understand her. And if people don't understand you they can't truly love you. What Hara is really doing is trying to form connections, the same way Shawn is. Yet she's doing it in a negative way. Which is really sad if she is the way she is due to her parents love and a lack of love in her current life. How can she continue to grow and develop if she is without love and love is the way, in this world, that people grow and change? I feel really bad for her right now. But. She's an unredeemed character. And I don't like watching her. Her bitterness, her selfishness, is so stark in that movie. And it ruined the relationship I really wanted to watch develop: Shawn and Arrietty.
With all that said: I think the movie is stronger without Hara. Best situation: Hara is a character, does want to capture the Borrowers, is tragic, but never ACTS on her desire to clear her name. I think her direct involvement in the plot is too convenient. She justifies Arrietty and family moving. Without her, there is no justification. The family moves simply because Arrietty's parents believe Beings and Humans shouldn't interact. It makes the friendship tragic. I think it adds more depth to the parents and makes the relationship between Arrietty and Shawn more complex. You sacrifice something thematically (because it is poignant to have a contrast to Shawn's seeking for connection) but I think you gain in plot. I would like this plot better than the plot that exists. I think having a clear villain is just too...easy.
Is it just me or did the crow grow as it was stuck in the window? It got bigger and bigger and bigger, until it was like...almost the size of Shawn.
My favorite moment is when Arrietty is trying to pull the tissue from the box and sees Shawn looking at her. That moment, what he says...I found it all really sad and nice. And when Shawn first leaves the sugar cube and the note, and we get a sense of how much of a GIANT he is compared to Arrietty.
What It's Good For:
-odd story that is sweet
-I think it's great for kids
-the red eyes of the raccoon/badger/time lord
-people who think their cat understands them and are seeking other examples of this communication
-people are complaining about the portrayal of Spiller
-Hara being so single-minded
-short-term resolution leaves us to wonder "what happens to these characters"
-what do the rest of the Borrowers look like?
-Miyazaki: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Princess Mononoke; Castle in the Sky; Spirited Away; Howl's Moving Castle; My Neighbor Totoro
-Manga films: Akira; Paprika; Afro Samurai; Transformers: The Movie (not really, but, whatever, it's awesome); Ghost in the Shell
-The Borrowers: The Borrowers (1997)
-Tiny characters: Toy Story; Small Soldiers; The Indian in the Cupboard; Child's Play