Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 31st 2005
The Cat Returns
Haru is a scatterbrained high school girl whose life is turned upside-down when she rescues a cat from an oncoming truck. It turns out that this is no ordinary cat, but a Prince of the Cat Kingdom! The Cat King insists that Haru be rewarded by marrying the Prince, which is exactly what she doesn't want. Needing some way to get out of this situation, Haru seeks out the Cat Bureau, a help agency headed by the dashing Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. Haru is barely introduced to him when a horde of cats spirits her away to the Cat Kingdom, and now it's up to Baron, the gigantic white cat Muta, and wisecracking crow Toto to save Haru from the fate that the Cat King has planned for her. They need to move fast, however, because if Haru doesn't return to the human world by dawn, she's going to become a cat... permanently.
It's hard to believe that something as accomplished as The Cat Returns was Hiroyuki Morita's directorial debut—but with Studio Ghibli backing him up, it would have been very hard to fail anyway. While it's easy to associate all things Ghibli with anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, don't make the mistake of calling this one a "Miyazaki movie." With swift pacing and a wicked sense of humor, Morita's style is worlds apart from that of the old master, but just as enjoyable as any of Miyazaki's works. Buckle up and prepare for a dizzying ride into the fantastic, secret world of cats.
While the typical Ghibli film is a showcase of whatever ideas have piled up in Hayao Miyazaki's head, The Cat Returns (based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi and loosely connected to Whisper of the Heart) takes more conventional elements and puts a unique spin on them. Enchanted animals, magical kingdoms, and homeward journeys are all part of classic fairy tales and legends, but rarely do they come together so effectively. The idea of a secret civilization of cats—and bipedal, talking cats, no less—is one that feels like it's been around forever, and yet no one's brought it to life until now. The story itself is simple enough for children to follow, but the sheer momentum of the plot will grab audiences of any age. Morita's rapid-fire pacing invigorates every scene, along with an arsenal of clever gags: dozens of cats chasing a catnip-laced Haru to school; Toto the crow dropping the grossly overweight Muta; even cats being thrown off the towers of the palace when they displease the Cat King (it's funny, seriously). The only failing of the story is that it's all over in 75 minutes—but it's an hour and a quarter well spent.
Also contributing to the charm of this movie is an instantly likeable cast of characters. Baron is possibly the coolest guy in anime since Spike of Cowboy Bebop, and if that's not instantly appealing, then his dedication to rescuing Haru is sure to win you over (just watch the scene where they run up the tower stairs). Haru, meanwhile, goes against the archetype of the Ghibli heroine and proves that even ordinary schoolgirls can beat the odds. Who needs magical powers, superhuman determination, and upstanding morals anyway? By the end of the movie, though, Haru has clearly learned a lot from her adventure. Even the supporting characters have memorable quirks, like Muta's aversion to fat jokes, and the Cat King's devil-may-care attitude. Thank goodness there's one ordinary guy (or rather, cat) in the cast: the noble but uninteresting Prince Lune.
Not surprisingly, the animation in The Cat Returns is fluid and faultless. While there isn't anything as mind-blowing as the fantasy landscapes or legendary creatures of earlier Studio Ghibli films, their rendition of the Cat Kingdom is everything a fairytale world should be. The character designs bear the familiar Ghibli trademark of expressive simplicity, although Haru wouldn't be too out of place in a shoujo TV series, either. The real challenge, however, is in bringing out human qualities among the cats. Although they're all drawn like real cats, the inhabitants of the Cat Kingdom walk on their hind legs, and each character has different nuances. For someone as cultivated as Baron, he's basically a human with a cat's head; the more savage Cat King, on the other hand, is definitely in tune with his animal nature. Whether cat or human, though, the animation is consistently slick, and even the chase scenes don't slip up. Although some of Miyazaki's mannerisms creep into the visuals—like Haru's hair flaring outward when shocked, and the obligatory flying scenes—Morita brings a style all his own to the fast-paced sequences. If anyone's ever criticized anime for having no sense of timing during action scenes, this movie will prove them wrong.
While the music isn't quite on a level with Joe Hisaishi's deep and touching melodies, composer Yuuji Nomi provides a score that's well-suited to this whimsical story. Armed with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and taking his cues from the Late Romantic period, Nomi creates a musical setting that isn't too different from a light opera or a symphonic tone poem. Like the movie itself, much of the music is lighthearted and comedic, relying on jaunty brass and woodwinds to set the mood. The ending song, performed by ukelele virtuoso Ayano Tsuji, caps things off wonderfully and will probably remind some viewers of the ending to Kiki's Delivery Serivce.
As usual, Disney brings in a handful of celebrity names to provide voices for the English dub, giving us a result that's brimming with personality even though there are some missteps. Anne "The Princess Diaries" Hathaway is a slightly deeper-voiced Haru than her Japanese counterpart, but her honest delivery captures the spirit of an ordinary girl. Meanwhile, Cary Elwes steals the show as Baron—his debonair, aristocratic English accent is exactly the approach that's needed to bring out that aura of coolness. However, the casting of Andy Richter as the King's servant Natoru turns the character from a ridiculously polite old woman into an annoying, nasal-voiced sycophant, and Tim Curry's treatment of the Cat King makes him out to be a retired hippie rather than a grumpy old cat. There's no question about the ability of these actors, but such "re-interpretations" of these characters do alter the feel of the story.
Disney pulls out all the stops with their DVD extras, providing an extensive "making-of" feature, some brief interviews with the English-language cast, original Japanese trailers, and complete storyboards. However, this doesn't change the fact that the company still has a nasty habit of trying to pass off the dub script as actual subtitles. These "dubtitles" prevent viewers from knowing what was said in the original Japanese version, and while the dub can certainly be enjoyed on its own terms, those who prefer subtitles will have to sit through it knowing that they're not reading a true translation of the original script.
Although it's not associated with buzzwords like "epic" or "masterpiece," The Cat Returns is one of the most enjoyable anime movies of the last few years, and for a simple reason: it's just pure, unbridled fun. With effortless action sequences, an array of slapstick and visual gags, and characters like the unforgettable Baron, this is one of those movies that you can watch over and over again. Sure, you could spend the rest of your days looking for the Cat Bureau—but it's a lot easier to find the nearest DVD store, pick up this movie, and let it take you there.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A delightful fairy tale with as much flair and panache as Baron himself.
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