Unlike other animation studios such as Disney which occasionally like to do sequels of their animated hits (Ranging from great to not living up to the standard set by the original), Studio Ghibli in general like to work on one title and then move on with others – without producing sequels. This is despite some of the source material including Arrietty and Howl’s Moving Castle featuring sequels that would potentially thrive as animated features themselves. One exception to this is The Cat Returns, which serves as a spin-off title to the Yoshifumi Kondō directed Whisper of the Heart.
Those who have watched Whisper of the Heart will recall the brief interludes during the film which switch to the creative writings of female protagonist Shizuku Tsukishima. In these sessions, the humanoid-like cat Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, who in the real world is depicted as a statue, is brought to life in a fantasy world, that would have loaned itself quite well to an animated feature of its own. Unfortunately director Hiroyuki Morita and the other members of the Studio Ghibli production team chose to not go down this route, instead producing a film set in modern day society and a hidden cat kingdom. It might be far from the magic that it could have potentially held, but with the blu-ray release of The Cat Returns now on store shelves kudos of Madman Entertainment, it is time to look back and see if it is worth the purchase or re-purchase.
The Cat Returns follows female protagonist Haru, who early on in the film narrowly rescues a cat from being run over by a car. This cat just so happened to be a prince of a hidden Cat Kingdom, which seeks to repay her in several ways including the pair getting happily (?) married. Not wanting to be married to a cat and with the deadline for her to be “escorted” to the kingdom looming, a voice tells her to seek the assistance of the ‘Cat Bureau’. From there she meets the cats Baron and Muta who take on her plight, but things become much trickier when she is forcibly taken into the kingdom and begun transforming into a cat herself.
Boasting a G classification, The Cat Returns serves as a fantastic introduction to the worlds of magic, wonder and at times sorrow that most Ghibli films have been known to provide. Its simple plot may lack the depth that some anime fans may have been wanting, but nevertheless is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, and doesn’t squander any moment of its 75-minute screentime. While not necessarily a bad thing, if there were one issue it would be that Haru is fairly bland for a Ghibli protagonist, with most of the development, action and comedy coming from characters such as the Baron, Muta and the Cat King – with Haru being more of an observer than anything else.
While some elements of their aesthetic appeal may have been bested by Makoto Shinkai in recent years, the Studio Ghibli brand still remains synonymous with not only fantastic plots, but also fantastic visuals. The Cat Returns wouldn’t be what I could consider their greatest works, however this 2002 feature film still looks visually pleasing in all regards, and the transition onto blu-ray made the film look even more impressive than the original DVD release (Which I had purchased only a few days before Madman announced the blu-ray edition).
The musical backing of the film is once again strong, retaining Yuki Nomi who also composed music for Whisper of the Heart. The English voice cast also contained a strong line-up of voice actors including Anne Hathaway as Haru and the late Peter Boyle as Muta. Most notable however was Cary Elwes who reprised his role as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, and matches the character perfectly.
Most Studio Ghibli films in the English Market contain a wealth of bonus features, and The Cat Returns is no exception. Much of the bonus content transitioned over from the DVD release, and includes storyboards, a “Making of” video, “Behind the Microphone” feature and a compilation of original and English-language trailers.
Whenever I watch The Cat Returns, I always think about the “what if”. “What if” this film decided to tell the full story of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen as penned by Shizuku Tsukishima, rather than a more simplistic, spin-off story about his stature in another time … or possibly reality. Given its age I doubt we will ever find out. However this does little to detract from the fact that The Cat Returns is still a competently produced and entertaining, albeit simple 75-minute film.
While Madman Entertainment will soon be coming to the end of their Studio Ghibli Blu-ray re-releases, we still have films such as Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies to enjoy (or in the case of Grave of the Fireflies… cry over) once more.