Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Cat Returns

In 1995, Studio Ghibli released a film in Japan known as Whisper of the Heart (JP: Mimi o Sumaseba or If You Listen Closely), based on a similarly-named manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and later received an English dub in 2006. This movie features a minor character known as the Baron, who would prove popular enough that a spin-off film was released in Japan in 2002, titled The Cat Returns (JP: Neko no Ongaeshi or The Cat’s Repayment), based on the Aoi Hiiragi manga Baron: The Cat Returns (JP: Baron: Neko no Danshaku), and was dubbed in 2005. While the manga has been translated to English and is apparently still available for purchase online, I did not know about or read the manga before watching The Cat Returns, nor have I seen Whisper of the Heart. That said, after watching The Cat Returns in English through the Blu-ray release from GKIDS, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the film’s overall quality.

Haru Yoshioka (Anne Hathaway) is a very clumsy schoolgirl with little self-esteem. One day, while walking after school with her friend, Haru uses a lacrosse stick to save a seemingly unusual cat from being hit by a bus, barely making it out alive with a broken stick. To her surprise, the cat (Andrew Bevis) stands upright and thanks Haru for saving him, though leaves before anyone else can see. That night, the Cat King (Tim Curry) arrives to thank Haru for saving the cat from earlier, Prince Lune, and showers her with gifts. Haru finds the gifts overwhelming, however a mysterious voice advises her to seek the aid of the Cat Bureau when she is told that she will be forcibly married to Prince Lune.

Haru's (Anne Hathway, right) rescue of an unusual cat begins a domino effect.

Fortunately, while it is a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, prior knowledge of that movie is not required. Though fairly short and low-stakes in comparison to some other Studio Ghibli works, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the context of The Cat Returns. These elements allow for a more focused narrative with a clear through line and message of believing in yourself, with the more supernatural elements very gradually and subtly introduced such that it’s clearly explained and you’ve already accepted the state of things by the time you reach the halfway point. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its own share of multiple plot threads, however it all comes together expertly in a single heartwarming scene.

As with many other Ghibli films, the animation is, to put it simply, spectacular. The character animation is very expressive and fluid with some very believable animal animation. The backgrounds are highly detailed while still fitting the art style and several outdoor background shots are reminiscent of watercolor paintings. The inside of the Cat Bureau has a calm and inviting atmosphere befitting its proprietor, the Baron (full name: Baron Humbert von Gikkingen) (Cary Elwes), which reminded me, however briefly, of the works of Beatrix Potter.

The Cat Bureau is inviting, as is the Baron (Cary Elwes).

Special mention goes to the realistic cat animations, with any human-like movements from the cats still accounting for proper feline anatomy, and all of the cat characters are designed to be easily distinguishable. The Cat Kingdom, the setting for much of the back half of the movie, is also well-designed with a consistent fish theme woven into the background design. One minor detail I noticed is that the banner for one location, the Crossroad, alternates between incorrectly reading “CROSSLOAD” and correctly as “CROSSROAD”, mostly the former. Since The Cat Returns is a Japanese production, I would attribute this to a quirk in the Japanese language, since the lack of an “L” sound often results in the infamous “L/R” confusion in Japanese romanization and English localization, though I will give the animators credit for rendering the word correctly at all.

Though the original language for this movie is Japanese, my experience is based on the English dub produced by Walt Disney Pictures, which I must say is very well-cast. Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada fame is a good choice for Haru, as she perfectly captures the character’s subtle mood shifts during the second half. Similarly, Cary Elwes of The Princess Bride fame is perfect for the Baron’s charming voice and calm demeanor. While there are other notable actors in the film such as Tim Curry as the Cat King, one thing I liked was the prominent use of what sounded like actual cat noises when the cat characters aren’t speaking, and that touch of realism alone breathes a lot more life into the movie.

The Cat Returns is one of Studio Ghibli’s lighter endeavors, however the pacing and the animation quality make this work really well, not to mention as a good movie in its own right. If you’re looking for a more wholesome movie and don’t mind the heavy cat theme, this movie is very much worth your time.

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