'The Secret World of Arrietty' has a fairytale in its music
American audiences will first hear the music of French composer Cécile Corbel in "The Secret World of Arrietty," the latest fairy tale from Studio Ghibli. Yet the story of how Japan's revered animation house plucked the harpist from near-obscurity is one ripe for motion-picture folklore itself.
Corbel packed her music with a letter and mailed the package on an inter-continental journey to Ghibli headquarters and awaited a response that she knew likely wouldn't come. "I wrote a letter to the head producers over there and I was not expecting much," said Corbel, who spoke to Pop & Hiss via a translator. The artist has released multiple albums in her native country, and said she was drawn to the works of Studio Ghibli -- "Ponyo" and "Howl's Moving Castle," among them -- for the way in which they blend ecological themes with fanciful storytelling that pulls from ancient, mythical beliefs.
"I sent them my latest album as a sort of a fan thing," she said. "I never thought I'd be working for the studio. I truly expected nothing in return."
What's more, the composer continued to be surprised at how the music remained untouched as the film was released around the globe. "The Secret World of Arrietty" opens in the U.S. Friday, brought to these shores courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. The latter added a song from Bridgit Mendler, the Disney Channel star who is the U.S. voice of Arrietty, but the new song appears in the credits and doesn't supplant any of Corbel's more delicate, airy work.
"We talked about Bridgit resinging one of the songs but we ultimately decided that wasn't that good of an idea," said veteran producer Frank Marshall, who also had a production credit on the English-language edition of "Ponyo." "Cécile's songs are so unique and we wanted to keep the film as it was. We've done two of these now and we've very respectful of what Ghibli has created. Our job is to tweak it a bit for the North American audience, but the music is so universal that it works wonderfully in the film."
Corbel's harp work draws on Celtic and folk traditions, and it gives "The Secret World of Arrietty," the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a far more subtle backdrop than the traditional orchestral score. It's also very exact and tiny, reflecting the world of the film, which is based on “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book about the minuscule people who live in the nooks and crannies of big people's homes.
"When I first saw the movie I was kind of surprised," Marshall said of the music. "It's so unusual for the movie. It's not Japanese instruments, yet it completely works because this world that we're watching could be anywhere."
Corbel said she received a letter back from director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who co-wrote the Japanese screenplay for the film. He asked Corbel to write one song, the theme for the film's main character of Arrietty. Upon enthusiastically accepting her assignment, she was given a series of sketches for the film, as well as character and plot summaries in the form of short poems. One song soon turned into 20.
"They sent a lot of their intentions in the form of poems, small poems, just a few lines," Corbel said. "They wanted me to write one song for each of the poems. Each of the poems was relating to one particular part of the movie. The creative process was really free. I just had to feel out the emotions that were described in the poems."
Corbel, being a student of the studio, knew the opportunity was a rare one. In addition to having to overcome a language barrier, she was well aware of the fact that Studio Ghibli regularly turns to Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi for its films. She had to resist the urge to over-think her good fortune.
"One of the hardest things was to stick to what they liked in my music and not try to make it film music," she said. "I wanted to remain very simple and subtle in the arrangements. They didn't want it to have orchestral music, which they had in many other Ghibli movies. They wanted something more acoustic."
A chase scene, in particular, gave Corbel plenty to stress over. Much of her music is warm, marked by vocals that are celestial and enchanting, and create a lush, pastoral setting that invites an intimacy between screen and moviegoer. For scenes in which a quicker tempo was needed, Corbel infused her classical stylings with upbeat hand percussion.
"When they wanted something frightening and fun, those are two words that don't always fit with my music," Corbel said. "It was hard to reach feelings that are not necessarily in my own music."
Helping both her and the film, she believed, was the fact that the score and animation were done concurrently. "The basic idea from Ghibli was to have all the emotion and feelings already inside the music, and then you bring that to the movie," she said.
With the Disney connection, Marshall resisted, at least until the final moments of the interview, of comparing Corbel's story to any wish-upon-a-star magic. "Dreams do come true, but Ghibli ultimately had to have the guts to take this chance," he said. "They have a wonderful vision about the films they make and she just clicked with them. It's a really cool thing that something like this can still happen."
-- Todd Martens
Photo: "The Secret World of Arrietty." Credit: Studio Ghibli / Disney