“Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”
-Baron Humbert von Gikkingen
The Cat Returns may be the closest thing to a “cartoon” that Studio Ghibli has produced.
This film is a very loose spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, featuring the Baron statuette from Shizuku’s stories and Muta the cat she chased around town. These characters return here in different forms and with much different personalities. Shizuku and Seiji do not appear and the story has nothing else to do with Whisper, not even thematically.
Neither Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata had practically anything to do with the production of The Cat Returns and it shows. Unlike Whisper of the Heart, which was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo but written by Hayao Miyazaki, Hiroyuki Morita’s Cat Returns lacks the length, appeal, message and pull of the movie it spins off of.
Haru, the protagonist, isn’t as compelling as the other Ghibli heroines. This film is short and parts of it are forgettable. It seems as if the quality of the animation took a step down, and takes steps down as the movie goes on, especially in comparison to Spirited Away. It appears to be a film which says little in the little time it runs. Taking the quote above and others like it in the film about the trite mantra of “believing in yourself” or “trusting your heart”, which Disney has been spoon-feeding generations of moviegoers without explanation, you get the barest sense that The Cat Returns has not much to add and nothing to say.
Now that’s not to suggest it is no way delightful, or that it’s uninteresting or dull. Parts of it are fun as an adventure and it has a few endearing characters. And it is far from the worst Ghibli film ever (oh, that one’s coming, rest assured).
Originally intended as an amusement park short before the project was cancelled, Miyazaki converted the basic ideas into a test concept for future directors in his studio. Nobody lives forever. Hiroyuki Morita took up the challenge and directed this film. While fantasy elements and an adolescent female lead are present, which characterize a lot of the Ghibli films, The Cat Returns stands out as a different film than the rest, given Miyazaki’s lack of involvement.
To me, The Cat Returns is much more like typical anime than most of the other Ghibli films. It is an adaptation of a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, just like Whisper was. Two films based on two works by the same writer and they couldn’t be more different.
Studio Ghibli isn’t one to milk franchises for sequels (*cough cough* Disney *cough*) but this isn’t exactly a sequel. The Cat Returns is a delightful but insubstantial Saturday morning TV show for kids without much of the depth of Ghibli’s other works. On its own, it stands as an okay animated movie, but it doesn’t stand on its own. It rubs the shoulders of giants and it can’t see beyond their shoulders.
The premise interesting. Maybe because I’m a cat-person?
The English title may refer to the Baron but the Japanese title, Neko no Ongaeshi, means “The Cat’s Repayment”, which you’ll see doesn’t refer to the Baron from Whisper at all.
Haru is an ordinary young schoolgirl who’s a little plain, impulsive, clumsy and easily distracted. One day she rescues a cat from being hit by a truck on the road and it turns out the cat can talk. It expresses its humblest thanks to her and scurries off. Haru doesn’t think much of it until she sees a procession of cats outside her house. Borne aloft on a palanquin, the king of Cat Kingdom the Cat King bestows his thanks upon her for saving his son, Prince Lune, from certain death. The cats vow to offer her gifts as tokens of their gratitude.
She wakes up the next morning to find cattails growing in her yard, neighborhood cats chasing her down, and wrapped boxes of live mice stuffed into her locker. But that’s not all! She also has earned the “reward” of marrying the Prince herself and a one-way trip to the Kingdom of Cats.
Haru hears a voice which tells her to seek out the Cat Bureau for help. A large white cat at the crossroads will take her there. The fat cat is a cranky Muta from Whisper of the Heart. He takes her to the Bureau and she meets the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. He’s a dashing gentlemanly-type who prepares to come to her aid before she’s kidnapped by a horde of cats to be carried off to the Cat Kingdom so she can be betrothed to a feline prince. Can he and Muta the fatso come to Haru’s rescue before she loses herself?
The fantastical nature of The Cat Returns with the inclusion of two familiar characters has led some to believe that this film is one of the stories that Shizuku writes based on the Baron and Muta. I think that’s a little bit of a reach but there isn’t necessarily anything in The Cat Returns that says that isn’t true. There are even moments which match up with Shizuku’s experiences, such as looking at the Baron statuette through the window, staring into his eyes at sunset, and chasing Muta through a narrow alleyway.
Is it a coming of age story? Is it just an adventure? It think The Cat Returns doesn’t need to be or doesn’t try to be any of these things explicitly. It’s just an odd story with talking cats and a girl developing her self-confidence. While I walked away from Whisper of the Heart reflective and inspired to get some writing done because Shizuku’s trials and lessons learned, I came away from Haru’s time in the Cat Kingdom with the thought: “Well, that was fun. What’s next?”
The 8-bit Review
Sometimes when I watch movies or play through video games with my wife, she says the line: “Their faces bother me”. That’s when I know there’s something off about the art style, design, or animation. The animation might actually be good as a whole but if the faces can’t emote right then something essential is wonky about it.
In the case of The Cat Returns, one has to wonder how we went from the opulent animation overwhelming previous films like Spirited Away to this? How did we go from films with characters that seem to posses their own weight and physics in three-dimensional space to this? To be fair, I’ve read that this style of animation more closely matches Hiiragi’s manga the film is based on, but among Studio Ghibli animations we’ve seen much better quality.
This film lacks that organic sense of being hand drawn and because of that it seems too-efficient, unfeeling and sterile at times. Lines are simplistic and characters lack depth without shading or highlights. They appear un-textured. The Baron, for example, looked alive in Whisper but here he looks dead inside.
Even the backgrounds in the film seem less inspired, with maybe only the scenes in the Cat Kingdom exterior being near the majesty of other backgrounds we’ve seen from Ghibli before. As an anime, this has got some decent animation. As a Studio Ghibli film, there’s no comparison.
I am quite fond of the closing song! I love the lighthearted ukulele and even though I don’t understand the lyrics, it’s a song that gets its melody deeply lodged in my head. So catchy and carefree, like a cat. I included the English lyrics below for those who are curious.
The music by Yuji Nomi, who also composed the score for Whisper of the Heart, is always cheery and magical throughout this film. It’s airy, light, as if it’s made of pink clouds and glitter. Seems appropriate for a movie like this. Never unpleasant but never profound.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After meeting the Baron, Haru thinks about leaving so that she won’t inconvenience anyone. Muta does tell her it’s her fault for meddling in the business of the cat she saved, nevermind he needed saving. Then the whiskered cats whisk her off to the Cat Kingdom. She awakes under a hazy afternoon light in a huge valley of tall grass with a towering castle in its center.
The cat that warned her to seek out the Bureau appears. Turns out it was a kitten Haru gave some food too and now it was trying to protect Haru from the Cat King. But a messenger soon arrives and they carry Haru off to the castle, Muta in tow.
There, wedding preparations are already underway. Haru gets dressed up in a gown but doesn’t want to get married to a cat, saying that she isn’t a cat herself. The Cat King and his adviser smile and say that’s already been taken care of. Sure enough, Haru is slowly transforming into a cat herself with paws and ears. She freaks out and runs for Muta but he apparently drowned trying to eat a huge glass of jelly, the glutton.
Haru is taken to a feast beside the Cat King where emissaries and dignitaries surround her and praise her appearance, but she’s miserable and cries. The King suggests entertainment. After several duds, an entertainer with a mask and cloak steps forward. Turns out its the Baron to the rescue. And Muta isn’t dead. Nothing can beat his stomach.
The three of them escape the castle but become trapped in a maze while searching for the exit from the Cat Kingdom. At the top of a tower is a dimensional gate leading to Haru’s world, but just when they arrive at the tower, the Cat King detonates its base with explosives and catches up to them. Suddenly, Prince Lune returns from his travels abroad and tells his father that he’s already selected a mate: the white cat who sent her voice to Haru, named Yuki.
Now all they have to do is climb the tower. Muta scares off the king’s guards and soldiers, since it turns out he is infamous in the Cat Kingdom under the alias Renaldo Moon (remember “Moon” was one of Muta’s names in Whisper of the Heart). He’s regarded as a monster who once devoured all the fish in the kingdom’s lake and all the king’s cats flee before him.
But the Cat King isn’t through. Not only does he ask that Haru marry him since the prince didn’t want her, but he chases down the Baron in a rage and the two have a duel. Baron defeats him and Haru reaches the exit, which has moved in the real world so that she comes out of a pipe hundreds, if not thousands of feet in the air. She and Muta fall through the sky and the Baron follows, and they’re saved at the last minute by a generous flock of crows who form a spiral stair for them.
The Cat King says he’ll retire. The Baron returns to his Bureau and Muta goes back to lying around in the sun. As for Haru, the boy she obsessed over has broken up with his girlfriend, but she says it doesn’t matter to her anymore.
By the end of the film, Haru’s evidently finally gained some self-confidence and she’s a stronger person now. It woulds seem that this was the gist of Baron’s cliché remarks about believing in herself in the Cat Kingdom. There, she was nearly forced into a marriage she didn’t want and she was somehow being magically, physically transformed into a suitable image for her new betrothed.
One could perhaps make the argument that The Cat Returns is about what women have to suffer through at the hands of men, changing their appearance and physicality for the sake of masculine pleasures and whims. But then, I don’t know that this film really wants to get a point as serious as that across. Maybe that’s reading too much into it. At the very least, it’s a film about a plain girl who wants to be her own person. Haru becomes confident in herself and grows up a little bit more.
Or does she? Haru hasn’t really abandoned crushes and she’s not become self-sufficient. She still falls airheadedly for the “cool” guys. The developers of this film couldn’t avoid the temptation to tie Baron and Haru together with a bit of romance. Obviously, there’s no way they’re going to hook up but Haru does admit she’s got a little crush on the cat figurine come to life. And there is a scene when he’s carrying her, racing up the steps of the tower, and she looks up into his face and blushes when he notices her staring. So she’s traded one male figure for a male figurine, one crush for another.
Haru essentially remains a damsel-in-distress through the entire film. The good guys conquer the wiles of the Cat King solely because the prince arrives to hinder him in time and the Baron beats him in one on one combat. Haru just has to climb through a whole. Haru may be a kind and relatable girl with insecurities, and she may indeed gain some much needed confidence in the end, but she’s a far cry from the powerful and brave female leads like Nausicaä, Satsuki, Kiki, Sophie, San, Taeko, and Shizuku. The only one she saves is Prince Lune in the first place. Just a cat.
Family Friendliness: 10/10
This film is harmless. There’s a funny scene where one of the entertainers at the Cat King’s feast throws squid at a woman-cat tied to a dart board like a knife throwing trick and the squid accidentally cuts open the girl’s top. There’s no breasts or nips, of course. They’re anthropomorphic but not to that extent. It’s actually a very humorous scene in a very kid friendly film. It’s even a bit more bite-sized of a film, good for children.
Two names: Peter Boyle and Tim Curry. I don’t think of Peter Boyle as a voice actor but he is absolutely perfect as the grumpy, lovable, plump Muta. He has a world-weary sound to his voice that’s spot on for the character. Considering Muta is probably the most endearing character in the movie, Peter Boyle’s performance should be lauded.
Then there’s Tim Curry. Has this guy ever been terrible in anything? He’s made to play the villain, it seems. As the Cat King, he growls and threatens throatily in every situation he’s in. Because it’s Tim Curry, the Cat King makes you uncomfortable. Tim Curry ruined clowns and hotel managers for me. Now he ruined flat-faced cats for me too. He’s not as nightmarish as in other roles but you can recognize it’s Tim Curry under all the king’s fluff. And why does he have that gemstone on his head anyway?!
Surprisingly, Anne Hathaway voices Haru and she sounds really young. Maybe she was putting on a voice, guesstimating she was in her twenties when this came out. Actually she was twenty. Haru doesn’t have a huge depth of character so even though she’s a big name actor, I felt she didn’t have too much to do in this movie. Easy paycheck.
Other voices include Judy Greer as Yuki, Andrew Bevis as Prince Lune, Elliott Gould as Toto the crow, Kristine Sutherland as Haru’s mom, and of course Cary Elwes returns to bring his posh, refined Baron back to life once more.
Even though I’ve said The Cat Returns is more like typical anime than other Ghibli films, it at least has a very unusual premise. The Cat Kingdom is a neat idea and it could’ve been bigger and better explored. So there are good ideas at the film’s heart, here.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I recently read that someone thought this film was perfect. They’re entitled to their opinion. I’d love to see them back up that opinion. All the power to Hiroyuki Morita for trying to fill shoes that might just be impossible to fill. As it stands, this remains the only Ghibli film he’s ever directed.
The Cat Returns is fun and funny and it made me smile to watch it even though it’s not the greatest Ghibli film ever. It’s accessible and easy to watch with its shorter runtime. If you’ve never seen it and you’re a fan of the Ghibli directors and animators, it’d be worth catching The Cat Returns, at the very least to use as a plumb line for how fantastic most of their other films are. Everything else is just candy.
Aggregated Score: 6.6