Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Of the Uncanny Valley and Borrowing from Real Life

In an involuntarily film-related Oscars segue, Nero and the wee dervish thumbed our noses at the mundane Monday after-school routine and took in "The Secret World of Arrietty." Based on a personal childhood favorite of mine, "The Borrowers," by Mary Norton, this adaptation is gracefully rendered by acclaimed Japanese animator and art director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, of Ponyo fame. 

In the science of animation there exists a theory, stemming from robotics, known as the "Uncanny Valley." The phrase, coincidentally coined by a Japanese professor, refers to a state in which a robot is made to appear so life-like that it repulses the viewer. Stop just short of the uncanny valley and empathy and compassion are piqued, go too far and we are scared off, almost viscerally so, by that eery approximation of ourselves. 

Animators often rely on the uncanny valley when developing characters for the big screen or the video game console. It serves as a reliable litmus test for when an imagined person or creature becomes too real or too threatening for comfort. This phenomenon, paired with the marketing of branded toys, helps explain why so many of the movies geared towards children showcase bizarre character constructs which masquerade on screen, neither fully human nor animal.

In the case of Arrietty, Nero was charmed by the refreshing simplicity, the Zen-like beauty of hand-painted animation. Although the film was backed by Disney, the pace was nothing like the frenetic tempo of most Pixar movies. In fact, there were long pauses, real-time moments of silence and natural background noises like falling rain, wind and quiet footsteps. Those details paired with a bewitching soundtrack made for a soothing viewing experience.

The story presented characters, both human and animal, recognizable in nature, albeit Thumbelina-sized. The language was thoughtful and imbued with sincerity and respect. The plot line, which lacked a forced slap-happy ending, spoke to the larger issues of childhood -- that fleeting and magical netherworld, that sticky limbo, a spider's web, the Borrowers' smallness a metaphor for the  tricky-to-navigate safety net between being and knowing, and ultimately the inevitable, growing.  

Nero detected a spare and very Asian gravitas in the presentation. An existential solemnity reigned throughout, which translated into a deeper take on the themes running through Mary Norton's writings. The film was a quiet but reverent bow to the hierarchy present in the circle of life -- a tale of essentials and all that we ever really have. Time and people, people and time, and binding it all together, nature and its many driving forces, both large and pint-sized. 


candicecowin said...

Thanks for the thorough review. Josie really enjoys Ponyo, though she finds it a bit scary at times. Anything to fear in this one?


Urban flâneuse, armchair observer, absent-minded scribbler, occasional epicure and carpool line cultural attaché, my nom de plume is Nero. Join me as I catalog a compilation of earthly delights and stuff that I dig. Alcira Molina-Ali



Follow Nero

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Nero Bites