The Other Side of Animation 102: The Cat Returns Review

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Well, it’s been two years since I started reviewing animated films, and I feel like it’s time to talk a little about myself, and what kind of movies I like to watch. I tend to enjoy a large variety of genres and different directors. I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore film fan and watch every single classic film, but I watch what looks like something I would enjoy. However, I tend to mostly pick a film that I can watch with no need to learn about something beforehand, or require to research some lore or backstory before watching the film, so I can get into the story. I like to be instantly dropped in, and be able to not be distracted by in-your–face-world-building elements. In short, I want to be able to put in a movie, not have to be in a certain mood to watch it, sit back, and relax. I think that’s why for this two year special, I decided to choose the Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns. This is definitely an oddball of the Ghibli filmography. It was released back in 2002, and was originally conceived as a 20-minute short film for an amusement park. Unfortunately, they canceled the project, but Hayao Miyazaki decided to use the idea for his own studio. The individual sitting in the director’s chair this time around was Hiroyuki Morita. His name might not sound familiar, but he has done some work in the industry by starting at Ghibli as a key animator for My Neighbors the Yamadas and an in-between animator for Kiki’s Delivery Service. Morita went on to direct the anime series Bokurano, and was mostly an animator for stuff like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Tales from Earthsea, Afro Samurai: Resurrection, Lupin III: Bye Bye Lady Liberty!, and Tenchi Forever! As it stands, The Cat Returns is one of the few animated films from the studio that was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. We didn’t get this film until 2005, and by that time, people were more focused on Miyazaki’s newest film, Howl’s Moving Castle. Let’s claw our way in, and check out The Cat Return.

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The story follows a high schooler named Haru, voiced by Anne Hathaway. Haru is having a rough spot in her life, where it seems like nothing is really working out for her. After coming back from school one day, she ends up saving a cat that was about to get run over by a car. By luck, the cat she saved happened to be a magical cat prince, voiced by Andrew Bevis. The prince thanks her, and later that night, Haru is visited by the prince’s father, The Cat King, voiced by Tim Curry. After some misunderstandings and complications, Haru ends up getting engaged to the prince, and tries to find a way to get out of the situation. She then meets a whimsical character known as The Baron, a small humanoid cat-like being, voiced by Cary Elwes. He decides to help her out, but right when he agrees to help her, Haru gets kidnapped and taken to the Cat Kingdom. It is up to The Cat Baron, along with his sidekick Muta, voiced by Peter Boyle, to help Haru escape the Cat Kingdom.

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The first thing you will notice about the film is the animation style. It’s still the fantastic 2D animation you know from such a studio, but it’s the designs that are for the most part, different. Everything is a touch more simplistic, and the human designs aren’t in the traditional Studio Ghibli design, and are more anime-style. It can definitely lead to more fluid animation, and for a film like The Cat Returns, it suits it. The story is very light, and while that might sound like a downside, it’s not. It’s a fantasy adventure film that uses its 75 minutes well, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a film that knows what it wants to do. It’s just an easy-to-get-into fantasy adventure film. Now, that doesn’t mean The Cat Returns itself is lacking substance. It’s still a Studio Ghibli film, with likable leads, a solid set of side characters, a creative world, and a fun villain. It also has some amazing visuals from the Cat Kingdom to the action sequences that help cement the film’s more light-hearted tone. I have heard some people compare this to some fantasy comedies like the Princess Bride, and I can see where they are coming from. It’s funny and has an eccentric personality, but also acts like a fairy tale with odd rules and lush visuals. The film does have a message of never giving up on yourself or your dreams, but it’s more of a backseat moral. It wants to be more about the whimsical side of things, and to be a more comedic fantasy film, and I have no personal problem with that. It’s something that I have seen pop up from time to time, where critics in general dismiss a film being simple as a bad thing. I never really got that, since simple doesn’t always mean terrible. Of course, it does come down to execution, but even then, it’s not always seen in a positive light. I mean, do we call out The Wizard of Oz as being too simple and relying more on emotion than logic? No, we celebrate it as one of history’s best movies, and rightfully so. Sometimes, when I’m going out to get a bite, I’m not in the mood for something big, fancy, and complex. Sometimes, all I want is a cheeseburger that’s done well, and a $5 milkshake. Movies don’t always have to be complicated.

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As for everything else, the cast is pretty fantastic. Anne Hathaway does a pretty stellar job as Haru. While Haru might not be one of the classic Ghibli female characters, she is still interesting. She’s innocent and kind of light-headed, but she is still strong and wanting to make sense in a fantasy world, which is usually much harder than you would think. Cary Elwes is fantastic as The Baron, and it sounds like he was having a lot of fun playing another fantasy hero. Pete Boyle has some of the better laughs as Muta, and, of course, it’s hard not to talk about this film and not bring up Tim Curry’s old hippie performance of the Cat King. You can tell that he was having a blast as this expressive and hilarious villain. Then again, it’s Tim Curry, and he’s always a blast to watch, no matter what the film is. Andy Richter plays an assistant to the Cat King, and while I know in the Japanese dub, the character was female, and, yeah, it’s weird that they would do this, I think Richter pulls it off. Actually, the actors in this film do pull off excellent comedic timing. It’s probably one of the few Japanese-animated films I can think of, where the humor is easy to translate to any country. A lot of the times, and sorry if I have already said something similar in a previous review, comedy in different parts of the world ranges in what they define as funny, and it doesn’t always translate well when you place it in another country. A lot of older anime had this problem when you realize Japan loved wordplay and puns, and some of those don’t translate to English well. It’s why a lot of foreign films I tackle have more universally acceptable comedy, like old-fashioned Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin-style comedy, since you don’t need to know a foreign language to know why something in a film is funny in that form.

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I love this fantastical adventure, but I have some complaints. While the fight sequences are well-animated and are a blast to watch, the final fight between The Baron and the Cat King is underwhelming. There is a great action/chase sequence leading up to this battle, but then the battle itself only last a few seconds. I love the 75-minute runtime, but there are definitely times where the story could have been fleshed out more. You find out about Muta’s history in a scene near the very end of the film, and it doesn’t really add much. It’s more lore for the world of the Cat Kingdom, but not much else. There is this fun crow character voiced by Elliot Gould, and while it’s always good to hear him because his voice is unique, he doesn’t show up in the movie a whole lot. He pretty much shows up near the end of the first act, and then in the final act.

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The Cat Returns might not be one of Ghibli’s strongest films, or one of their most epic, but it’s still Studio Ghibli. It’s still well-animated, entertaining, well-acted, funny, and full of amazing imagery. I consider it the hidden gem of the studio, and to be honest, it has grown to be one of my favorites. Yeah it has its faults, but every film is going to have faults. It just depends on how big or bad they are to not be able to ignore. I would say go buy the Disney release of this film, but I would personally wait until the GKids re-release is available. Definitely not my favorite from the studio, but it’s still a splendid movie. Well, speaking of fantasy adventures, it’s time we look at 2017’s My Little Pony: The Movie. Everybody, thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!