The Cat Returns – Review
The Cat Returns:
Original Release Date: July 20th, 2002
Reviewed By: Tom
Synopsis: Haru, a quiet and shy high school girl has a suppressed ability to talk with cats. One day, after saving a dark blue cat from being hit by a truck, she finds herself surrounded by the attention of the Cat Kingdom, a fantastical world filled with talking cats. They offer her all kinds of gifts for having saved that dark blue cat, apparently the Cat Kingdom’s prince. Unfortunately the gifts are generally tailored to cat tastes and when Haru doesn’t bite they even offer her the Prince’s hand in marriage! Haru isn’t really up for any of this, but when her reply isn’t forceful enough it’s taken as a yes.
Seeking to find a way out of this predicament Haru hears a mysterious voice that tells her to seek out The Baron, a cat figurine who was giving life by the work of an artist and now resides as a sort of detective and hero. As the Cat Kingdom kidnaps Haru and attempts to force her to marry into their royalty, can The Baron save Haru and help free herself from the Cat Kingdom’s clutches?
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
The Cat Returns is perhaps the most kiddish Ghibli film I’ve seen yet. While much of Studio Ghibli’s work is intended for the younger audience, many of their films actually have a broad appeal, extending across all ages. But The Cat Returns feels like something aimed at an age group I’m no longer a part of, now unable to fully appreciate what it offers.
Starting with the animation The Cat Returns generally bears the same classic style Ghibli is known for. Unlike other Ghibli offerings, the colors feel a bit softer, perhaps even faded. While the film journeys between two worlds, the real and the fantastical, the two blend quite well together, feeling like a natural extension of the other.
But it’s the characters where I start to disconnect. Haru is decent enough as heroines go, although her arc has little real connection to the film’s narrative, meaning her ultimate conclusion and shift as a character feel perhaps unearned, disconnected from the stories’ progression. Haru is shy and preoccupied with high school crushes that are already taken. She seems to lack confidence in herself and by proxy has a hard time reaching out for her desires. By the end of the film she no longer cares about such things, which is an odd turn and I’m not sure displays the sudden boost in confidence the film is trying to convey. Instead it feels more like Haru has grown up, but neither revelation seems to really extended from her and the Baron’s efforts to free her from the Cat Kingdom. Even the knowledge that the kitten she helped as a child appreciates what she did feels like it would have little bearing on Haru’s persona. It feels more like Haru’s personal revelations are mainly just a catharsis for the audience, a way to bring the story full circle and provide a satisfying conclusion. It’s superficial at best.
The Baron, the very same from Whispers of the Heart, is your standard, perfect, unwavering hero. He’s more of a catalyst character, and should appeal to younger viewers, or anyone who prefers their heroes stalwart and unflinching. It’s not to say that the Baron is a bad character, but he feels perhaps bland. Classically dashing, swashbuckling, in all the right amounts, but with little personal quirk and charm to set him apart from other such characters. Perhaps that’s why he’s voiced by Cary Elwes for the English Dub, an actor known for playing that exact character type.
The film employs Muta, a rather large pudgy cat, as the films primary source of comic relief. He’s perhaps the film’s highlight, as he aids Haru in her quest to free herself of the Cat Kingdom’s unwanted attention. Even the reveals for his character sit as the most amusing revelations.
But the villain of the piece, the Cat King, is fairly one-dimensional, although that portrayal sinks away in the film’s final moments as the Cat King undergoes a bit of self-reflection, for comedy’s sake, near the end of the film.
The Cat Returns’ story is actually fairly simplistic, and manages to introduce its more fantastical elements with ease, making their introduction feel natural, save for a few flaws. Namely, The Baron’s introduction. It’s sudden, under explained, and only justified via a couple lines of dialogue, unlike the Cat Kingdom’s inclusion, which feels more naturally integrated into the story.
Later on, when Haru begins to transform into a cat, the development is also sudden and poorly foreshadowed. There’s a lot of innate fairy tale logic, but the rules are only introduced moments before these elements come into play. It’s perhaps a symptom of the movies short run time, forcing things to run together quickly without perhaps enough room to breathe.
Finally, the dub for the film boasts a number of well known actors and actresses who deliver performances that fit quite well with each character and Ghibli’s style. Although Tim Curry struggles to match his lines with the Cat King’s lip laps and movements, his voice otherwise fits perfectly with the type of character the Cat King is.
Overall The Cat Returns isn’t perhaps the best example of Ghibli’s overall quality. It’s appeal sits squarely in the court of a less nit-picky audience, younger viewers, and doesn’t hold up quite as well alongside Whispers of the Heart. It’s still a good film however, as are many of Ghibli’s works, flawed or not. But it’s one I don’t feel holds its own as a must see title, and is perhaps best left to younger audiences, or tried and true Ghibli fans.