Synopsis: Shy and awkward Haru Yoshioka feels like she never does anything right. She can never wake up in time for school and is always tripping over things. When Haru performs a good deed by saving a cat from getting hit by a truck, the animal responds by thankingher and promising to repay her kindness! Soon Haru is getting all kinds of gifts from the Kingdom of Cats, including cattails in her garden (which make her sneeze) and live mice in her locker (which make her squeamish)! Haru regrets helping the cat, because now his brethren won’t leave her alone. But things really turn serious when the Cat King decides to bestow upon Haru what he views to be the ultimate gift: the hand of his son, the prince, in marriage! Desperate to avoid being taken to the Cat Kingdom and turned into a cat forever, Haru seeks the help of the Baron, a dapper kitty in a formal suit, along with his fat and grumpy friend Muta and a crow named Toto. But before her new friends can stop them, representatives of the Cat Kingdom come and steal Haru away in the night. Can Haru find her way out of the Kingdom before she’s completely and permanently transformed?
The fifth and final installment in my week-long tribute to Studio Ghibli started off as a twenty-minute short about cats commissioned by a Japanese theme park. Banking on the popularity of the two felines from 1995’s Whisper of the Heart – Muta/Moon, the fat train-riding cat, and Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, the well-dressed figurine in the antique shop which provided inspiration for the main character’s novel – Hayao Miyazaki wanted to bring both characters back in anthropomorphic form for the short. He hired Aoi Hiiragi, who had written the manga on which Whisper was based, to pen the manga equivalent of the new film. However, when the theme park pulled out of the deal, Miyazaki instead decided to keep the existing material and expand the film as a training exercise for future Ghibli directors. Hiroyuki Morita, who had done previous animation work for the studio on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), was handed the task of directing based on the 525 pages of storyboards he created based on Hiiragi’s manga.
While The Cat Returns brings back two characters from Whisper of the Heart and calls them by the same names, it’s not exactly a sequel, as the story seems to take place in a different sphere and the characters have different personalities (presumably – neither was gifted with the power of speech in Whisper so it’s hard to say what personalities, if any, they had). If you’ll remember back to the plot of Whisper, the main character wrote a novel starring the Baron, so the most logical connection to make is that The Cat Returns is – or takes place in the same world as – the story Shizuku writes in Whisper. Or Miyazaki just had a fondness for kitties and wanted to use them again; point is, you’re not meant to think too hard about the connection, as it’s ultimately not important to either story.
Like Miyazaki, I’m a pretty big fan of kitties, and the cats in this film do not disappoint. My favorite part of this movie is the way the cats are depicted, and the wide variety of cats with markings specialized to their duties. There are Secret Service cats in little tuxedos, giggling handmaiden cats, even military camo cats with green fur. I love the realistic behavior of the cats in the real world versus their fantastical – but still unmistakably feline – personalities in the Cat Kingdom. Plus the familiar story of a damsel stolen away by an evil king to be forced into an arranged marriage with an unknown prince is given a unique and amusing twist. As usual, Ghibli provides us with a strong female heroine who will accept help when she needs it but is by no means helpless. And like Whisper, our heroine is an awkward girl in her early teens with doubts about who she is, who ultimately learns to trust herself and be proud of her individuality. These heroic female leads are one of the things that keep me going back to Ghibli films every time, and one of the many reasons why they make such positive films for families to enjoy together.
But to me ultimately The Cat Returns feels like it’s missing that signature Studio Ghibli flair and attention to detail. The world-building in the Cat Kingdom feels half-baked and not particularly enthralling. The connection of the Baron – who isn’t a real cat, but a figurine, and enigmatically describes himself as “someone’s creation,” who therefore has a soul, because all creations do – to the rest of the cats isn’t fully explained, and left me feeling like his role was a little horned-in. Plus the overall moral message we are supposed to get from Haru’s story didn’t feel strong to me, like it was just a given that there was a moral to this story so why waste time developing it. Overall the film feels somewhat half-finished, almost like a first draft. It makes sense in both a canonical and realistic way; if this is supposed to be Shizuku’s first novel from Whisper of the Heart, it is a rough draft; likewise if this was meant to be a training exercise for director Morita, it’s expected to be imperfect. While it’s a very cute film and one I enjoy, I can’t help feeling that it’s not quite up to par with Ghibli’s other offerings. Of course, being “up to par” with Hayao Miyazaki is quite a tall order, and there’s nothing wrong with taking time to find your footing. While Hiroyuki Morita has not directed anything since The Cat Returns, I believe he shows a lot of potential, and I hope to see him collaborate with Miyazaki again in the future.
The Cat Returns (2002) – 3/5 stars
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