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The Cat Returns: A Magical Tale of Many Kitties

Studio Ghibli is often deemed the Disney of Japan, and it is difficult to find much fault with the comparison. Not only do both dominate their respective domestic (traditional) animation markets, but there are many similarities to be found in the epic adventures and enchanting fairy tales they bring to the screen. There are also differences to be sure, for Ghibli shares neither Disney’s tradition of technical sophistication nor its fascination with song and dance numbers, instead striving for more sophisticated stories and messages with simpler animation. Nevertheless, Disney’s marriage to Ghibli as their U.S. distributor strikes one as supremely natural. And having squeezed an Oscar and a decent theatrical run out of Spirited Away, Disney now turns its attention to bringing some of Ghibli’s superb back catalog to DVD. Among the most recent releases is The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi), which, despite being one of Ghibli’s lesser-known titles, far exceeds its limited reputation.

All of us can recall a handful of classic stories we were read as kids that spirited us away to a wondrous world of fantasy, filled with charming mythical characters whose acquaintance we would gladly have knocked out all our baby teeth to make. The Cat Returns is cast in the same mold as such fairy tales, and though its heroine is a teenager kids of all ages are sure to be entranced by it. I have seen most of Ghibli’s theatrical output, and while I have never questioned the fantastic quality of the product, I have often found myself less than greatly entertained. Perhaps it is because, like Disney, Ghibli holds hard and fast to certain conventions in its works that become less and less fresh with time. My favorite Ghibli film remains Nausicaa (another must-have freshly out on DVD in the States), a stirring cautionary tale about ecological preservation. When I later saw Princess Mononoke trumpeting the exact same cause it seemed a bit redundant. Similar repetition of themes can be found in Ghibli’s quieter coming of age flicks like Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro). Imagine my delight when I find that while The Cat Returns does cover the tried and true themes of coming of age and believing in oneself, it turns out to be a wholly unique experience, not just a storybook classic which might have leapt from the pen of Beatrix Potter, but also a humorous and unpredictable adventure.

Haru is a typical high school girl for whom things just don’t seem to come easy. She’s late for class, laughed at by the boy she likes, and generally has trouble fitting in. Just when she’s starting to feel really down on life she sees a mysterious cat walking out into traffic and she dashes out to save it. Amazingly the cat speaks to her, and before rushing off says it will return to thank her properly. That night Haru is awoken by a procession of regal cats escorting the very King of Cats himself to her house to thank her for saving his only son Prince Lune. The king’s servant Natoru tells Haru that she will be showered with gifts for her good deed. Sure enough the next day there are all sorts of strange developments: her garden is suddenly full of puss willows and dozens of gift-wrapped mice appear in her school locker. A little unnerved by the situation, Haru hears a mysterious voice that urges her to seek the help of the “Cat Bureau.” Her search leads her into a magical world of miniature buildings where the souls of great artistic creations dwell, and there she meets the ever so proper feline figurine Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. After hearing her story he promises to go to the cat kingdom to investigate, while his grouchy feline comrade Muta looks after Haru.

Suddenly Natoru and a mob of cats show up and carry Haru and Muta off to the cat kingdom, with Baron and the crow Toto in hot pursuit. In the cat kingdom, a picturesque place of rolling hills, the king pushes forward preparations for Haru’s wedding in the castle, her protestations going largely unheeded in the absence of the prince. She notices to her great alarm that she has begun to physically transform into a cat, sprouting feline ears and whiskers. The Baron shows up in disguise at the pre-wedding party and breaks Haru out, with Muta holding off the guards. Aided by the kindly cat Yuki, the three race to make their way to the portal home before Haru starts coughing up hairballs.

Haru is a very likeable and believable heroine, completely natural in her innocence and awkwardness. She is everything one would expect a real teenager to be, steering clear of tired cinematic clichés like streetwise attitude and macho heroism. It is a refreshing change to see a script treat a kid as a kid and not as a miniature adult. [AMEN! -Ed] The Baron is all charm and sophistication, coming off as a mix of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Kids are sure to warm to this dashing feline hero who might have stepped off the pages of The Wind in the Willows. Muta provides an enjoyably gruff and surly counterpoint to the fairy tale atmosphere, and though it is no great shock when he turns out to have a big heart, he bears a dark secret that makes for an unexpected twist. All are memorable characters to be sure, but the show is ultimately stolen ten times over by the sleazy, lazy, pompous, and just generally nutty cat king. In such a charming children’s story, it is a bit of a jolt to have such an entirely inappropriate character, but it works. Whether breezily ordering people killed or shamelessly leering at young girls, the king blithely defies storybook sensibilities to great comic effect. Disney has produced more menacing villains, but never one quite as eccentric or creepy. The Japanese performances are all excellent, but if you care to check out the English version you’ll find the all star team of Anne Hathaway as Haru, Cary Elwes as Baron, Peter Boyle as Muta, Elliott Gould as Toto, and (no great surprise here) Tim Curry as the Cat King. Now there’s a cast. Other American anime distributors should take note.

The animation is on par with Ghibli’s other features: very smooth and attractive, if a tad simple by Disney standards. There is little of the major eye candy found in Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but the atmosphere of the film is such that it isn’t missed. One of the few standout images is the Baron’s magical hometown, a splendid little town square made up of quaint European buildings the size of dollhouses, including the Baron’s own Dickensian abode. Equally enchanting is the flock of crows that forms a spiraling staircase in the sky for Haru and friends to walk down.

While the film is at least mildly amusing all the way through, the laughs really start flying when the Cat King takes center stage. At Haru’s pre-wedding party he calls on various entertainers to put on a performance to stop the tears of the distraught bride-to-be. When a knife thrower accidentally cuts off his female target’s top to the embarrassment of the crowd, the disgusted king orders him thrown out the tower window. The next performer does a comical dance routine, and one guest bursts into such a thunderous fit of laughter that he is quickly tossed out as well. Things progress so that when it is time for Haru’s dance the king’s now very fearful band squabbles over which of them will play the piece.

Disney delivers a strong set of special features befitting the Ghibli pedigree. Behind the Microphone is an excellent piece featuring short interviews with all the key English actors on their recording experience. The Making of The Cat Returns grants an interesting in-depth look at the development of the project including interviews with all the key Japanese players from Miyazaki on down. Turns out the film was originally supposed to be just a 20 minute short for an amusement park, but Ghibli was so taken with first time director Hiroyuki Morita’s storyboards that they decided to make it a feature. This is one point where the Japanese obsession with detail goes a bit overboard, as we are told (and shown) what people ate and where they sat in the restaurant during that discussion. You’d think they had penned the Gettysburg Address there. Some may remember the characters of Baron and Muta from smaller roles in the earlier Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba). Finally, we get Morita’s storyboards in their entirety, with the English soundtrack running over them. Probably fascinating stuff for the budding animator, but I’m not quite that hardcore.

To be perfectly blunt, The Cat Returns is simply fantastic. Kids will adore it, animation fans will embrace it, and anyone with even an ounce of the innocent dreams of youth still alive in his or her heart will be unavoidably swept up in the fun. Just remember to remind your cats it’s only a movie, lest they get delusions of grandeur.

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