The Cat Returns [2002]

The Cat Returns 1a

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould & Tim Curry
Directed by: Hiroyuki Morita

Animated by: Studio Ghibli
Release Date: July 2002
Running Time: 75 mins

Synopsis: A teenage girl rescues a mysterious cat from traffic and soon finds herself the unwelcome recipient of gifts and favours from The Cat King, who also wants her to marry his son, Prince Lune. Kidnapped and taken away to the Cat Kingdom, Haru’s freedom lies in the hands of a dapper cat statuette come to life.

I first watched The Cat Returns back in 2005 when, after the success of Spirited Away, Optimum Releasing brought the Studio Ghibli back catalogue out on DVD in the UK. This was my first exposure to some of the Studio Ghibli classics such as Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but I also picked up a copy of The Cat Returns, which back then was a more recent release. The film is a spin-off from an earlier Ghibli title, Whisper of the Heart – a film which I hadn’t (and still haven’t) gotten around to watching. Luckily, no prior knowledge is needed as the connection between the two stories is a relatively loose one. Back then, I remembered finding The Cat Returns somewhat superficial in nature compared to the other Ghibli releases I’d watched, such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Almost twenty years later and I recently put it on for my 18-month old daughter before bedtime and found myself revisiting the film with fresh eyes.

Set initially in suburban Japan, The Cat Returns makes its provenance known and there is a refreshing quaintness to its inner-city setting that is present with most Ghibli films, whether they be set in rural or urban Japan. Despite this focus on Japan, the film feels more westernised than its counterparts, mainly because it borrows plenty of elements from Western fairy-tales such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Haru is the typical pre-teen girl heroine whose reality-altering journey parallels her own footsteps into maturity and womanhood – it is a theme recurring in the aforementioned works and fairy-tales in general. Caught between the unappealing realities of growing up and the fantastical world of the Cat Kingdom, it is no wonder that she briefly considers giving up her human self to marry the Cat Prince. Even with its otherworldly elements, The Cat Returns feels more restrained and muted than the likes of Spirited Away, at least in terms of its character design – eschewing imaginative constructs and cute mascots for a more traditional cast of characters.

The Cat Returns 1b

Under threat of an arranged marriage and an unwanted transformation into a feline, Haru seeks counsel from the Cat Bureau – a rag-tag team of an overweight cat, a giant crow and a cat statuette come to life. These characters previously appeared in Whisper of the Heart, and form the rescue committee for Haru in this adventure. The dashing cat figurine, known as Baron, gives off a Sherlock Holmes-esque vibe of unflappable intelligence, flawless fisticuffs and a love for the refined things in life, such as freshly brewed tea. Fat cat Muta acts as his muscle, whilst Toto the crow provides aerial support. The three characters sprinkle a little anime magic into proceedings and once they make their appearance at the end of the first act, the film kicks off in earnest. That’s not to say that this is a slow-paced movie, far from it – at only 1 hour 15 minutes, The Cat Returns is extremely economical with its run time compared to its lengthier predecessors.

The English dub for The Cat Returns is excellent, with Cary Elwes reprising his role as Baron from Whisper of the Heart. Given his career-defining performances as Westley from The Princess Bride and Robin Hood from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it is no surprise that his voice suits the kind and charismatic hero. A young Anne Hathaway, fresh from her movie debut in The Princess Diaries, voices the lead character Haru, whilst Tim Curry takes on the role of the Cat King, imbuing the manic kitty with the same intensity and oddball characteristics as his real life performances. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that the Cat King’s design was based on Curry himself. Peter Boyle (aka the Dad from Everybody Loves Raymond) stands out as the grumpy Muta, whilst Elliot Gould has a minor role as Toto. It’s a lovely cast and the dub captures the essence of the film nicely.

The Cat Returns 1c

The Cat Returns is a great example of Studio Ghibli’s eclectic style and how the studio can create films that vary dramatically in tone and design from one movie to the next. One simply has to take a look at releases such as My Neighbours the Yamadas, or even the recent Earwig and the Witch to see that. Many view Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away as the defining Studio Ghibli template, mixing high fantasy and Japanese folklore with female-centric stories, and while there are shades of those themes permeating through their works, each release has a fresh voice and unique flavour. Influenced by the likes of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, The Cat Returns feels the most westernised of Ghibli’s early 2000’s output. Whether this was intentional to capitalise on the increased awareness from the successes of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away with US audiences, or not; it certainly created a sense of disconnect after two very distinctly Japanese folklore tales.

Over twenty years after its release, and free from expectations and comparisons with previous Ghibli films, I can honestly say that The Cat Returns holds up as an enjoyable piece of escapism. Its characters are utterly charming and the film has a quaint sense of whimsy about it that makes it quite comforting to watch; the peril is mild and the action feels somewhat wholesome and timeless. Sure, it has a paper-thin plot and may lack the same flamboyance and imaginative character designs seen in other Ghibli movies, but it remains a completely enchanting adventure on its own merits, and my 18-month old daughter was transfixed by it – so much so that we’ve since watched it multiple times!

Score – ★★★★

The Cat Returns is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Amazon UK, as well as available to stream on Netflix.


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