The Cat Returns

Slightly disappointing non-Miyazaki Ghibli outing. Still worth a watch.

Released in 2002, certified UK-U. Reviewed on 21 Jun 2005 by Craig Eastman
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You buy Miyazaki, you get quality. It's the new number one rule in animation. Disney knew it, hence why they knew the only way to keep a grip on their empire was to buy the rights to distribute Studio Ghibli's movies in the West. Tellingly, The Cat Returns aint Miyazaki, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why, although clearly captivating to a younger audience, it fails to engage the adult audience on the expected level. Of course I say "expected" in the full knowledge that Studio Ghibli and it's founding father have never necessarily set out to produce movies that appeal to both demographics; it's just that so well crafted are Miyazaki's own works that the older viewer can't help but be absorbed along the way.

The Cat Returns shares a similar theme to My Neighbour Totoro and, more closely, Spirited Away in that it's protagonist Haru (voiced here in the English dub by Disney do-gooder Anne Hathaway) travels through a portal to an alternate reality run by other beings. In this case it's a Kingdom of Cats, lorded over by, appropriately enough, The Cat King (Tim Curry bizarrely attempting to channel Barry White). Haru is transposed to this parallel mew-niverse (sorry) after an she saves a rather innocuous-looking puss from a potentially messy cat/car interface on a busy road. That night she is paid a visit by a royal procession of felines headed by The Cat King. His advisor informs Haru that the cat she saved was in fact his son, Prince Lune (Andrew Bevis), and as his saviour she will receive all manner of preferential treatment including all the worldly possessions his subjects can muster.

Needless to say nobody mentions these gifts will have a distinctly "catty" theme, hence Haru being chased mercilessly down the street by crowds of stray felines thanks to pockets full of catnip and the like. Worse still, the young lass discovers she is to be wed to Prince Lune against her will in a ceremony organised by The Cat King after he decides Haru will make the perfect partner for his son. In order to reverse this harassment, Haru needs a way into the Kingdom of Cats and is guided by a disembodied voice to seek the aid of The Baron (Cary Elwes); an independently operating aristocratic moggy who can assist her with her woes with a little help from his friends Toto the raven (Elliot Gould) and Muta (Peter Boyle) the big, fat, grumpy cat who turns out to have a heart of gold.

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So far so familiar, but it's this familiarity that perhaps hampers The Cat Returns. Rather than standing on it's own four paws, the movie instead feels like it may be borrowing a little too much from classic Miyazaki. From the Alice in Wonderland reality-hopping to the theme of rejecting the value of worldly goods it's all been done Myazaki-style before. There's every chance this is because The Cat Returns isn't Miyazaki at all but a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida based on the comic by Aoi H?ragi. As such there's a good likelihood that in trying so hard to please the taskmaster those responsible have forgotten to include too many original ideas of their own. Still, that sounds a lot harsher than it's intended to be since much may well have been lost in the English dub without my having seen the Japanese language original, besides which it's still a pretty neat little film in it's own right.

True, the characterisation may be lacking in comparison to what we might expect in a Miyazaki original, but the protagonists here are still an immensely likeable bunch, despite some shaky dubbing duties. Disney production values mean the vocal stylings are always going to be better than the good old days of chop-socky kung fu imports a good half second out of synch with the film, but compared to the efforts employed by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton on Princess Mononoke things fall slightly short of expectation. Again, that sounds harsher than it really is and it certainly shouldn't provide reason for the casual viewer to avoid this picture.

Considering it's non-Ghibli roots and the fact it's been through the tumble-dried stone wash of translation, The Cat Returns still does pretty well to emerge an entertaining if not inspiring piece of entertainment. In fact considering it still clocks out at a score most of Disney's own in-house offerings have been mustering of late it has good reason to be proud of itself. Bearing in mind this is a movie less obviously designed to appeal to both adults and children and instead focused entirely at the younger age groups I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that kids are going to find The Cat Returns a blast. And at the end of the day, if that was the intention then let's call it a job bloody well done.

I award this movie an Old Man rating of 3 stars. Call it 4 for kids.

Hiroyuki Morita
Cast list:
Chizuru Ikewaki (Haru)
Yoshihiko Hakamada (The Baron)
Tetsuro Tamba (The Cat King)
Anne Hathaway (Haru - English dub)
Cary Elwes (The Baron - English dub)
Tim Curry (The Cat King - English dub)