March 3 , 2004
Haru is a typical high school student, good natured, a little clumsy, always sleeping past the snooze alarm and rushing to school late. One day, while walking home with her best friend, talking about boys, she spots a cat carrying a small package. The cat crosses the street and unwittingly into the path of a truck; Haru quickly charges into traffic and scoops the cat from danger. She crashes into a sidewalk bush, and as she recovers, the cat slowly rises on his hind legs, and begins to talk.
So starts an enjoyable little romp called The Cat Returns, Studio Ghibli’s 2002 release. The story is something of a very loose spin-off of the great Whisper of the Heart, featuring two reoccurring characters: Muta, a very smug and very fat cat, and The Baron, a cat statue that comes to life every evening. The script is based on a story by Aoi Hiiragi called Neko no Danshaku, Baron. Hiiragi is also the author of the original Whisper manga, but this is a very different story. Instead of a romantic coming-of-age tale, The Cat Returns is a more typical fantasy in a somewhat generic style.
The by-the-numbers feel of this film is understandable; this is director Hiroyuki Morita’s first feature film. He’s a young filmmaker, having worked as a key animator on My Neighbors the Yamadas and an in-between animator for Kiki’s Delivery Service. The Cat Returns is a project that was handed down by Hiyao Miyazaki to the studio’s younger artists, and was largely left alone by the old masters. That leaves Morita, and scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, free to test his wings on a lower-priority picture; goodness knows it would be cruel to expect him to fully follow-up Spirited Away, the highest-grossing Japanese film in history.
He does a fairly decent job. The story involves Haru, who is hounded by cats who wish to drag her off to the mythical Kingdom of Cats, and meet the King who wishes to marry her to his son (the cat she rescued). Haru entertains flights of fancy, but ultimately resists, and seeks the help of Muta and The Baron. Hilarity ensues. Haru is taken to the Kingdom of Cats and slowly becomes one herself. More hilarity ensues. There are some chases, some witty dialog, some cheap gags, and the typical believe-in-yourself moral lesson before the final escape back home.
The backgrounds and artwork are wonderfully bright and detailed, like every other Ghibli release; the movie is almost split down the middle, between the crowded city and the ancient, rural cat kingdom. I also really enjoy the design of the characters themselves. Haru isn’t drawn in the same style as Miyazaki or Takahata, but is a little different. There’s a sharper look that’s lighter on the details (much in the style of Japanese watercolors), but bright, sharp, urban. I’d like to see more animation in this style; everything’s just unique enough to stand out.
Still, after Spirited Away (just about the best-looking animated movie ever made), Cat Returns feels a little cheaper and lower-budget, almost direct-to-video. Animation is a touch choppier than you’d expect, especially later in the cat kingdom. There are touches of computer animation here and there, but it’s all a little disjointed.
The Cat Returns is clearly inferior to the classics in the Ghibli canon, and I've discovered that my enthusiasm for it has waned over the past year. This picture just isn't about anything, except talking cats and a load of cartoon gags that have been done before in a thousand Disney cartoons. The shots cut just a moment too soon, the story’s two halves seem stitched together, seemingly important plot points are just dropped, and there are a couple sequences practically ripped off of Whisper of the Heart and Nausicaa. You just imagine to yourself the possibilities, if only the script went through one more rewrite.
I don’t wish to be overtly critical, but offer advice. I’m eager to see how this young director progresses. He is, after all, working underneath two of cinema’s master filmmakers (and both Miyazaki and Takahata didn't unleash their genius until after many years in the business). You can almost imagine Morita working with a checklist on this movie. Stunning backgrounds? Check. Confident, strong-willed heroine? Check. Clever chase scenes? Check. Quiet moments? Check. Subtle character movements, stumbles, and double-takes littered about? Check. Insanely catchy song at the movie’s end that stays in your head for days? Check and check.
The Cat Returns proved a success at the Japanese box office (it was the top-grossing film of 2002), and I suspect it would be successful in America. It has cats, and the lightweight, straight-to-video feel should make it easily accessible in the States. Goodness knows parents will be more than happy with the DVD, since Totoro will seemingly never be released in this country.
But that's another schpiel entirely.