Jaime and I went to see the latest Studio Ghibli (But not directed by Hayao Miyazaki!) film, The Secret World of Arrietty. I was looking forward to it because I’m a big nerd about Studio Ghibli’s films; I love My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. They were magic for me at a young age, with their beautiful scenery, strong, intelligent, interesting leading female characters, and plots which dealt with complex moral issues without talking down to the audience.
Arrietty is above average for a family film in North America, and as far as a non-Miyazaki Ghibli film goes, it’s alright. You can tell it was made by someone other than Miyazaki, there are a few moments when the camera’s moving from one scene to the next where it’s blurry and rather jarring, rather than the smooth flow that characterizes most of his films, and the angles aren’t as interesting as they could be for a film about little tiny people. It’s a much simpler film compared to the ones I mentioned above, meant more for children, like Ponyo was.
But honestly, what really stopped me from liking it was the way the film handled Spiller, a character from the original Borrowers books which the film is based on. Spiller, or “The dreadful Spiller” in the original books, helps Arrietty and her family relocate after being displaced from their old home due to being spotted by “Beans” (Their mispronunciation of the word “human being”)In this film, Spiller is introduced into the story as a helper before the family is displaced, he rescues Arrietty’s dad after he’s injured.
Now, what Spiller *does* in terms of the plot isn’t a big deal, what is bothersome is the way that he’s portrayed: Spiller is noticeably darker-skinned than the other Borrowers and humans and has wild black hair, he forgoes clothes in favour of wearing a fur cape and tunic, hunts with a bow and arrow, eats crickets (which visibly disgusts the other Borrowers) wears face paint, and speaks in broken English, even holding up his fingers to signify “this many!” when asked about other Borrowers around the area. He is, more or less, a stereotypical “native” character. There are even “tribal” sounding drums which play for his theme on the soundtrack (Don’t believe me? Listen to track No. 9)
[Spiller demonstrating his bow and arrow]
I wanted to like The Secret World of Arrietty. I wanted to be able to shut my brain off and enjoy it. But Spiller’s characterization overwhelmed me with anger and frustration. It’s clearly a children’s film, it has the pacing and the story of a children’s film, kids will see this, and some of the kids who will see this will be native kids. They will see another embarrassing, inaccurate portrayal of natives* onscreen, and get almost no opportunities to see someone like them portrayed in a mainstream movie in non-caricatured format. I feel more for those poor kids than anyone else right now.
This could have been avoided. Spiller’s voice actor could have spoken in complete sentences. The other male Borrower in the film, Arrietty’s father, speaks little, but this makes him come across as strong and silent, not wild and uneducated. Why didn’t anyone speak up? Why didn’t anyone suggest avoiding stereotyping Spiller during the dub? I’m aware of Ghibli and Disney’s “No Cuts” deal, but that doesn’t mean Spiller’s characterization couldn’t have been altered in a way that made him less brazenly offensive.
I’m disappointed. An otherwise cute movie was ruined for me because of this. Why should that be the case, in this day and age?
* Even from a young age, I recognized what was meant to be “Indian” and what wasn’t, you can’t argue that kids won’t see Spiller as being native-coded.