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."