Neko no Ongaeshi
Running Time: 75 minutes
US Certificate: G UK Certificate: U
Schoolgirl Harus own life may be a mess, but that does not prevent her from saving the life of an elegant blue cat when it is about to be run over only to see the cat stand up on its hind legs and thank her. That night, as everyone else sleeps, the King of Cats and his feline retinue visit Haru, and, in thanks for her kind rescure of the Kings son Lune, promise her a programme of countless joys in the days to come. Much to her distress, Haru soon learns that these include not only a trip to the Kingdom of Cats, but her own imminent marriage to Lune (she hardly knows him, you see AND hes a cat). On the advice of a mysterious female voice, Haru seeks help from the Cat Business Office, run by the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, his rotund friend Muta, and a crow called Toto but before they can even finish their tea together, Haru is whisk(er)ed away to the Kingdom, and must race against time to get back home and reclaim her identity.
From Krazy Kat to Felix, from the Cheshire Cat to Puss-in-Boots, from ‘the Cat in the Hat‘ to Fritz, from Topcat to Tom, from the ‘Aristocats‘ to Silvester, felines have always made splendid subjects for animators because the many characteristics and behaviours they display can readily be assimilated to our own. Sure enough, The Cat Returns delivers a whole bagful of recognisable cat-types, including the dashingly cool Baron, the cute and petite Yuki, the princely Lune, the expansively peremptory King, and of course Muta, a greedy, lethargic, fat and cynical moggy accurately described in one scene as a giant marshmallow. Yet if all the feline characters who bestride the Kingdom of Cats are unquestionably anthropomorphised, wearing clothes, walking on two legs, and speaking Japanese with a near purr-fect accent, then the relationship cuts both ways, as the human heroine Haru, already somewhat cat-like in her desire to eat tonnes of great food, then have a nap, gradually shrinks in size and acquires pointy ears, a tail and whiskers as the story goes on.
Even if it is all just a dream (and keeping a close eye on Harus bedside alarm clock, amongst other things, will suggest that it is), Haru needs to play at being a cat before she can realise who she really is and wants to be, so that when she reawakens in human form, she has nonetheless undergone a transition from aimless child to strong-minded young woman, in what is a barely disguised allegory of adolescence. The films title, however, alludes not just to Harus reemergence from feline form, but to the return of the cat Baron who, along with Muta, had previously featured in Studio Ghiblis Whisper of the Heart (1995) another film about a girls coming-of-age based on a graphic novel by Aoi Hiragi.
Japans Studio Ghibli has been put on the world stage thanks to the works of animation supremo Hayao Miyazaki, and it was between Miyazakis twin successes with Spirited Away (2001) and Howls Moving Castle (2004) that the Studio released The Cat Returns – a project originally conceived by Miyazaki but directed by his protégé Hiroyuki Morita, who had previously contributed artwork on Miyazakis own Kikis Deliver Service (1989), as well as Satoshi Kons Perfect Blue (1997) and Isao Takahatas My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). It is precisely this noble pedigree, however, that leaves The Cat Returns looking a bit like the bedraggled runt of the Ghibli litter. For despite its exquisite artwork and expert voice cast, the film rarely matches up to the imaginative genius of Miyazaki, rarely reaches out its claws beyond the immediate target audience of teenaged girls, and, for all its brevity, seems at times to be less arresting than arrested in its pace.
It's Got: A feline perspective on the world, lavish background sets, and some very funny voicework.
It Needs: Faster pacing and a bit more of the imaginative bizarreness that has rightly made Miyazaki so admired.
DVD Extras Audio choice of English or Japanese 5.1, with optional English subtitles or SDH; scene selection; original trailers; storyboards for the entire film (accessed through the alternative angle option); The Making of The Cat Returns (34min, Japanese with English subtitles), excellent documentary on the conception and production of the film, full of interviews with all the major crew and voice cast; the Studio Ghibli collection (10min), a chronological trailer reel of all Miyazakis films for the studio; original Japanese theatrical trailer. Version reviewed: Optimum Asia, catalogue no. OPTD0136 DVD Extras Rating: 7/10
Alternatives:Alice in Wonderland, Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Aristocats, The Wizard of Oz, Whisper of the Heart
Exquisitely drawn, if not quite imaginative enough to be the cats meow.