I love cats. My sister has had a cat for almost a year named Wednesday (or Stinky, as my sister insists on calling it) and I can tell you firsthand that they are great. They’re wild, they’re adorable, they’re tranquil. They’re just awesome. Also, I love anime. Who doesn’t (except for my sister, but she doesn’t count)? It’s realistic, beautiful, original. It’s absolutely wonderful. Now, whenever two beloved things are combined, the result can be either an excessive amount of fecal matter or a wonderful experience. I would categorize the 2002 anime film, The Cat Returns, under the latter. Mostly.
The plot revolves around a schoolgirl named Haru, who is having the type of day that the band, Limp Bizkit, describes in the song, Break Stuff. OK, maybe not that extreme, but she lives a pretty bland life. However, her life changes after she saves a cat from getting hit by traffic on the road. The cat she saves turns out to be Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom, and the fellow felines of the Cat Kingdom decide to repay her. It starts out with them, constantly, giving her gifts and, eventually, she is offered Lune’s hand in marriage.
Unfortunately, Haru doesn’t want to marry a cat (how dare she!) and gets a message from a voice, telling her to find the Cat Bureau and, eventually, she is taken to the Cat Kingdom. Over the course of the movie, she meets many characters, including the formal Baron cat, Muta, a fat, agitated cat, and Toto, a wisecracking, smart aleck raven.
The phenomenal thing about this movie is the way the movie seamlessly blends an original concept with an almost Lewis Carroll-like story. This movie is, also, the wittiest movie Studio Ghibli has ever made. The script is jam-packed with sharp visual and written jokes. I, also, love some of the twists in the movie, especially ones involving Yuki, a white female cat, and Lune that I won’t dare spoil here.
Of course, the animation is spectacular as usual, although, not as awe-inspiring as previous anime films. The movie doesn’t really allow the viewer to soak in the realism as much and some of the animation is a little too pedestrian than usual. However, there were many moments, like walking up a tower or a tower diving down after being detonated, where I had an out-of-body experience where I felt like I was there. There are, also, some quiet, simple, atmospheric moments that are just as thrilling, such as Haru chasing Muta for the first time and the maze scene.
The voice acting is great, as well. I watched the English dub and all the voice actors are funny and dead-on in their parts. The voice talent includes Anne Hathaway as Haru, Judy Greer as Yuki, Peter Boyle as Muta, Elliott Gould as Toto, and my personal favorite is Cary Elwes as the Baron, who has the perfect formal, sophisticated voice for the role.
However, as much as I praise the movie, the movie does not come without its flaws. I would blame it on the fact that this film was directed by Hiroyuki Morita and not by Hayao Miyzaki, but Miyazaki directed Porco Rosso, which wasn’t a great film either. First of all, there is one running joke that the Cat King says “babe” at the end of every other sentence. It stars out funny, but, eventually, becomes trite and annoying. I never thought I would say that about a Miyazaki film, but there it is.
Also, I thought that since the film is only 75 minutes, it would move at a nice brisk pace. For the most part it does, but it kind of drags in the middle. Another thing that I, also, have to praise and yet criticize at the same time is the fact that this film is a little more sophisticated than past Studio Ghibli films. However, because of that, it doesn’t have the drive that past Studio Ghibli films had.
Finally, there are two major flaws that I have to point out. The first flaw involves the villain, the Cat King, and his advisor, Natori. The Cat King becomes a villain when he tries to prevent Haru from leaving the Cat Kingdom and forces her into the marriage with the Prince. The Cat King does not make a very compelling villain. He is bland, uninteresting, and non-menacing. As far as Natori, I am not going to discuss him because he’s barely a character.
The second flaw revolves around the main character. Folks, we are screwed if one of the major flaws of the movie revolves around the main character. She just doesn’t have the magnetism of Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service or Chihiro from Spirited Away. She is pretty bland and doesn’t even change that much until the last four minutes of the freaking movie. Also, her character design is grotesque. The other characters are creatures are animated just fine, but Haru looks like an anime schoolgirl hooker. She should’ve been animated less crudely. I understand anime characters have large eyes, but her character design is more suitable for a manga that an anime film.
It sucks that I have to discuss all these flaws, because I want to love this movie. The concept is great and there are so many great elements, but it doesn’t come together as tightly as Totoro or Spirited Away, but it is definitely a very well made anime film and nowhere near mediocre or awful. It's just not, how do you say...purr-fect! (Yeah, I'm ashamed of myself)
RATING: A high three-and-a-half stars out of four