The Cat Returns
I cannot imagine trying to make a film at Studio Ghibli. With the precedents set by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, I think it would be rather daunting. How could you face the pressure of directing a film for a studio that's responsible for half the classic anime in existence? Yet that's precisely what Hiroyuki Morita did. One of the promising new talents at Ghibli, Morita has been groomed for this spot, and The Cat Returns is his debut. And for a debut, it's great. Though the story is a little too simplistic to be one of Ghibli's best, Morita does a good job with the material. It doesn't soar as high as the recent Howl's Moving Castle, but it makes a whole lot more sense.
Haru, our heroine, is far from the strong female characters the Ghibli studio is known for. Late to school often and a little scatterbrained, Haru is a sweet but unfocused teen who just blends into the crowd. But one day, a little bit of spunk comes out as she rescues a wayward cat from certain death under the wheels of a truck. Haru doesn't think much of it...but when cats start popping out of the woodwork and speaking to her, she thinks she's going crazy! But it turns out that the Cat Kingdom is all abuzz about her saving the crown prince. They can't understand why she won't immediately come and marry him, but she isn't so sure she's still sane. She's led to contact the Cat Bureau, where she meets the Baron and Muta, two cats who have an existence outside the kingdom royalty that agree to help her. And as the Cat King is going to make his plans happen with or without Haru's approval, she'll need that help if she's going to escape the strange and fantastical Cat Kingdom without pads, paws, and claws.
As anyone familiar with Studio Ghibli productions would expect, The Cat Returns is a great looking film. Although a couple of shots on the US Disney DVD look less than perfect on certain players (mainly on cat whiskers shimmering), it still has a magnificent appearance. A 75-minute feature from 2002, it doesn't have quite the stunning look of the most recent films from the studio, but it doesn't need it...it still looks miles ahead of most anime on the US market today. The US dub is good, and many roles come off very well, such as Peter Boyle's Muta; however, Tim Curry's Cat King is off. The DVD has an essentially "dubtitle" sub track, which means that though you can enjoy the original language performance, don't expect a word-for-word translation.
About the only thing I can really fault within The Cat Returns is its plot, which is not just uncomplicated but almost juvenile. The show unfolds like a basic children's book, which is fine, but its message ("believe in yourself") is thrown in a couple of times as if to please some editorial ethics quota rather than being integral to the story. Haru does become a more distinct individual by the end of the show, not because anyone taught her a moral lesson but because of the events surrounding her. It's almost trite, and a cynic could find the whole thing too childish to be worth the time.
However, I can honestly say that I found the experience pretty delightful. Putting aside what I mentioned above, the movie moves swiftly and comes up with plenty of unique surprises. It also stands as one of the most coherent Ghibli productions. Even though I love Miyazaki's material, sometimes he loses his narrative line, and that never happens in The Cat Returns. And the sense of wonder here is perfect for the young. I had the opportunity to watch the film with my 2 1/2 year old, and it kept him captivated the whole time. (It was his first anime, so I was quite proud.) But moreover, it didn't scare him. There is a little bit of peril in the program, but not enough to frighten most little children. For a child, this is just good fun.
I could continue to compare The Cat Returns with other pictures in the anime canon, but I feel I have to stop at this point. Standing on its own, it's a good film meant for the whole family. It's missing the extra spark that would make it a classic, likely because of its overt attempt to moralize and its plotline meant more for children than adults. But as entertainment you'll want to watch with the kids on a Friday night, it's got the goods.
The Cat Returns -- nothing objectionable -- A-