Little people, big fun in 'Arriety'

If there are little people in your house, ensconced on the sofa, looking out the window at the winter rain, round them up and take a movie field trip to see "The Secret World of Arriety." It's wonderful.

Based on the first of five books by Mary Horton, titled "The Borrowers," "Arriety" was adapted for the screen by the renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The film is sumptuous, rich and fluid, with a narrative that is irresistible.

First the premise: beneath the floorboards of a charming Japanese country house lives a family of three: Arriety (Bridget Mendler), a 14-year-old girl, and her mother (Amy Poehler) and father (Will Arnett). She is eager to push the limits of her world, despite the dangers that are ever-present, such as the very large house cat. Arriety is warned by her father to be careful, reminding her that the other families that shared the house with them are gone, some having simply disappeared.

Still, Arriety pleads to go on a nighttime borrowing expedition with her father. The purpose is to bring back a cube of sugar (which will last for weeks) and a tissue. It's a captivating scene as Arriety visits, for the first time, the enormous kitchen, the scale overwhelming.

The steadfast rule of Borrowers is that if seen by the "Beans" (the big people), they must leave their home and never return. It's simply too dangerous.

Arriety is spotted by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly boy, deeply lonely, who has just arrived for a mandatory rest. And so begins a nicely crafted tale that is gentle and sweet, though with a hint of danger and menace.

Arriety is conflicted about what to disclose to her parents about Shawn. She is attracted to this strange, solitary boy, like a moth to a flame, no matter their differences in size and experience.

Adding to the tension is the housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett). A bit duplicitous — sneaky, really — she has long suspected that there are little people somewhere in the house and her mission, over the years, has been to capture one, proof that she's not batty. She makes for an interesting foil.

Arriety is a lovely character, a girl on the cusp of young womanhood, courageous and compassionate and always curious. She also is, like Shawn, a bit lonely. Her father, understanding her wish to explore, counsels restraint. She is, after all, no taller than a coffee cup.

Audiences steeped in contemporary animation may find the prism through which the film is shown to be softer, strangely less animated and frenetic, absent any hard edges. It's an interesting distinction and looks decidedly different.

"The Secret World of Arriety" was the highest-grossing film in Japan in 2010, a comment on how rich and inviting this adventurous tale proves to be. The film says, simply, "imagine," and then let yourself be swept away. Hopefully, our media-tech savvy youngsters still find the world of imagination a familiar and welcoming place.

"This Means War"

"This Means War" is a strange title for what portends to be a romantic comedy-thriller. Well, maybe not. There are two arrested-development types, Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine), who work for the CIA, fight crime and clandestinely compete for the affection of Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), who has spunk and a ton of cute.

Problem is, Witherspoon can walk through such roles in her sleep. She should have long ago abandoned such shallow, poorly written, romance-lite films that ask so little of her. But it isn't just Witherspoon; it's the entire disappointing film that burns through both talent and plot, hoping to convince the audience that there is a there there.

Sure, the three live in gorgeous apartments, have jobs, while not really working. Actually, the guys hang out a lot at headquarters, plotting how to use government assets and personnel in order to spy on one another and on Lauren as they race toward the finish line, a metaphor for the sack. Do we care? Nope.

For ersatz tension, there's a gunrunner (Til Schweiger) who can really hold a grudge. Something about an arms sale has gone wrong, caused by the dynamic duo.

The story: It's an incoherent mess and an insult to the audience. As for the chemistry between Reese and her two suitors: MIA.

According to studio promos "This Means War" was a Valentine's Day card. Hardly.

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