Produced by: Studio Ghibli
Writer/Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Original Manga: Aoi Hiiragi
Length: Movie (1:15)
+ Animation is a beautiful feast for the eyes
+ Characters are well developed with unique personalities
+ Celebrity voice cast was well suited to the film
Fairytale plot of the second half doesn't gel with the more mysterious fantasy of the first half
Works of art may be immortal, their creators however are not. Unlike Walt Disney Studios which struggled in the 1970s and 80s to find talent to replace veteran animators as they retired and passed away, films such as The Cat Returns demonstrate that Studio Ghibli has already found a new generation of talented artists to bring their particular style of charming and beautiful animated films into the 21st Century. And although it is not a perfect film, The Cat Returns is a witty and charming production that would be a good way to introduce someone to the work of Studio Ghibli. It is not as intense as Princess Mononoke or as message oriented as Pom Poko so it is perhaps a more suitable film for younger viewers, especially young teenage girls.
3 out of 5
The Cat Returns Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 1/31/2007
In 1995, Studio Ghibli released the film Whisper of the Heart which featured as a protagonist a young girl writing a fantasy novel. Although the girl's life contained no fantasy elements, sequences laced throughout the film depicted scenes from the novel she was working on. These sequences, featuring a cat character named the Baron, proved so popular that fans soon clamored for a film based on the story within the story. In 1999, Studio Ghibli was commissioned by an amusement park to produce a short film that in some way featured cats. Using the fantasy elements from Whisper of the Heart as a springboard, Studio Ghibli began production on what was to be a 20 minute film. The project was later cancelled and Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki decided to expand the existing footage into a 45 minute film as a testing ground for new directors. Eventually Hiroyuki Morita, who had begun his Studio Ghibli career as an animator on the film My Neighbors the Yamadas was chosen to develop the project. Working over a period of 9 months he generated more than 500 storyboards for the film. Finding Haru, the story's central character very compelling, Miyazaki gave the go ahead for the feature film that became The Cat Returns.
This film has a more contemporary feel than Studio Ghibli productions directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata which often bear a sense of longing for a bygone age. From the very first frame, The Cat Returns immerses itself in the world of Japanese life of the late '90s. Haru's life, like that of many contemporary Japanese, is a mishmash of traditional Japanese culture and Western influences. Haru is raised by a single, working mother whose hobbies include making American style quilts and who goes to work in clothes no different from her American or European counterpart. In the opening scene, Haru's mother eats a fried egg on toast, a typically American breakfast. At school Haru plays lacrosse, a sport imported from the United States and at home her bedroom is furnished in the Western style with a bed rather than a futon and is decorated in an array of pop culture knick-knacks. Unlike the elder Studio Ghibli directors, Morita seems to accept cotemporary Japanese life in rather matter-of-fact fashion. This is a refreshing contrast to Takahata films such as Pom Poko that see the world through an old man's nostalgia tainted glasses and Miyazaki films that too often pine for a world that never was.
Like other Studio Ghibli films, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, The Cat Returns deals with the world of the fantastic which lies just beyond our normal perceptions. After rescuing the cat from a fatal close encounter with a delivery truck, Haru returns home and discuses the possibility of talking cats with her mother. Her mother suggests that Haru has always had a close connection to cats - at the very least an intrinsic understanding of their needs and comments on the "human" condition. Later that night Haru is awoken from a restless sleep by the arrival of the Cat King. The cat Haru saved is the King's son and the King has come to reward her personally. She is given a scroll with a list of items she will be receiving as her reward and the King departs with his entourage. The next morning the front lawn is overgrown with cattails and a storage room at the school has been filled to bursting with lacrosse sticks, apparently this is the beginning of Haru's rewards.
Show More One of the joys of the film is its rich use of minor details to create its world. For example when the Cat King arrives with his entourage, it is, like many modern vestiges of royalty a hodgepodge of ancient and modern. The Cat King rides on a litter carried by his servants and is attended by a black robed chamberlain. However, the King and his courtiers speak in modern idiom, and the King is guarded by cats whose fur patterns mimic the black suits associated with secret service agents and other body guards for heads of state. When Haru goes to school she is followed by a hoard of cats because her clothes have be saturated with catnip and her locker is filled with dozens of small gift boxes containing live mice. The Cat King's generosity, like a real cat's, is both overwhelming and mostly appropriate to cats as anyone who has ever opened the door to find a dead bird on the doorstep can testify. Eventually Haru learns from one of the Cat King's courtiers that the entire Cat Kingdom has vowed not to rest until Haru is completely satisfied -- up to and including a marriage proposal from Prince Lune, the cat whose life she saved.
Completely overwhelmed by everything that has happened to her since rescuing Prince Lune, Haru hears a mysterious voice tell her to seek out the Cat Bureau, an agency that will apparently aid her with her predicament. She is lead by Muta, an overweight and gruff cat through the back alleys of the city to a neighborhood consisting entirely of small scale European style buildings. Glancing in the windows of one of the houses, Haru notices a figurine of a cat dressed as a 19th century European gentleman complete with walking stick and top hat. The setting sun transforms this figure into the Baron, an aristocratic cat who explains that Haru has arrived in refuge for artistic creations that have been endowed with souls because thoughtful artisans created them with all their heart.
Show More The Cat Bureau is a rather loose association of three denizens of this district: the Baron, a dignified Victorian gentleman (or gentlecat) who prides himself on his hospitality; Muta a gruff but lovable cat who poses as a cynic to mask his true feelings; and Toto a raven who seems to enjoy a love-hate friendship with Muta. After an initial disagreement between the Baron and Muta, the Bureau agrees to help Haru out of her predicament with one proviso: Haru must learn to believe in herself. Only moments later the Cat King's soldiers arrive to take Haru away. Although Toto and the Baron give chase, the Cats succeed in bringing Haru and Muta to the Cat Kingdom, a beautiful pastoral land where cats walk on their hind legs, speak human languages, live in scaled buildings, and have a hierarchy built around an all powerful monarchy. Overwhelmed by the splendor of their surroundings Haru almost forgets the Barons advice and begins to transform into a cat and Muta, who is supposed to look after her is trapped by his own gluttony when the Cat King's servants trap him in a bowl of jelly. Their only hope is a bit of last minute heroics by the Baron.
It is at this point that the story shifts from a charming and mysterious fantasy of the unseen world of cats into a comic swashbuckler reminiscent of The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Princess Bride, all the-more-so in the Disney release which features Cary Elwes as the Baron. This portion of the movie is complete with an insane villain, sword fights, disguises, dramatic reversals, chases, and prat falls seen in many other, better movies. While beautifully animated and wittily scripted this portion doesn't quite gel with first half and it's questions of teenage angst and the search for self.
Taken as a whole, The Cat Returns; fits somewhere in between Studio Ghibli's epic fantasies such as Princess Mononoke and their smaller more personal films such as Kiki's Delivery Service. The film's lesson that strength comes from trusting in oneself is somewhat lost when the heroine, transformed into a cat, is being chased by the Cat King's dimwitted goons through an impossible maze. However, the movie does have its bright spots including beautiful animation, a witty script, and charming characters. It is not the best film ever produced by Studio Ghibli but it might serve as a decent introduction to their work.
Studio Ghibli founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki are not young men anymore. And Miyazaki has threatened to retire on more than one occasion. If anything, what The Cat Returns and the other films by the younger generation of Studio Ghibli animators demonstrates is that an entire generation of competent and creative artists are waiting in the wings to take the reins of the company when Takahata and Miyazaki are no longer willing or able to work on films anymore. While not yet at the level of genius of either one of Studio Ghibli's founders it can be hoped that this younger generation will grow in talent with each endeavor much as their elders did. After all, Rome, as it is said, wasn't built in a day.
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