It breaks Judge Joel Pearce's heart to write a negative review of a Studio Ghibli movie.
"Always believe in yourself. If you do this, no matter where you are, you'll have nothing to fear." -The Baron
Although it contains a few similarities to its superior peers, The Cat Returns is the weakest film in the Studio Ghibli canon. Much like Disney's direct to video sequels, everything in this film is a notch or two below par. Children are still likely to enjoy it, but this is one Ghibli film that everyone else should take a pass on.
Facts of the Case
When spacey schoolgirl Haru rescues a cat from being hit by a truck, she suddenly finds herself showered with gifts from the Royal Family of the Cat Kingdom (who she can speak to), including the hand of the prince in marriage. That's an honor that she doesn't really want, but she's too timid to refuse outright. When she gets in over her head, she must turn to The Baron, a magical cat, for help. With the help of the Baron, his overweight cat friend Muta, and Toto the crow, Haru takes a dangerous journey to the Kingdom of Cats to reclaim her freedom.
It would have been easier to write this review if The Cat Returns had been truly terrible. It really isn't that bad, but when it's put up against the other films from Studio Ghibli, it certainly pales in comparison. It's the sequel to the truly delightful Whispers of the Heart, which is one of my favorite Ghibli films. Whispers of the Heart doesn't have the adventure of Princess Mononoke, but it has a quiet grace and a subtle magic. That film isn't available in North America yet, and it would have been a far better choice for Disney to bring over. The Cat Returns begins charmingly enough, with the cute misadventures of Haru. She's a likable protagonist, stumbling through life and not expecting such a magical adventure. Ironically, as soon as she actually begins that adventure, the story starts to fall apart. The premise of unwanted gifts from the cats isn't enough to carry the story through to its conclusion, and the plot quickly descends into nonsense.
Pretty much every area of the production falls below Ghibli's very high standards. The animation is decent, with a few beautiful moments at the beginning and end, but most of it lacks the detail and richness of the studio's other recent efforts. Haru is the only truly expressive character, and many of the supporting characters are placed in generic looking groups. Other Ghibli films never talk down to children or toss out simplistic morals. This is the biggest failing of The Cat Returns, which tries to straddle the action-oriented Ghibli movies and the gentler ones such as My Neighbor Totoro. The moral message here is simply to be true to yourself, which is a fine lesson for children, but doesn't involve the depth and complexity of Ghibli's usual fare. There is no real conflict or danger, which is sad after the intensity and creativity of Spirited Away. Add to that the pain of ending with a deus ex machina, and you get a disappointing experience.
For the most part, Disney has treated this film with the same level of respect that it has treated the others in the series. They have netted good voice talent, especially Anne Hathaway (Ella Enchanted) as Haru and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) as The Baron. However, there are also a couple weaker performances, especially an inexplicably tacky use of Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the Cat King. He uses a bizarre accent and talks like a sleazy movie producer from the '80s. The original Japanese audio track is somewhat superior, but there are only dubtitles included. It's not a track for the hearing impaired, but it doesn't feel like a literal translation, either. The sound transfer itself is well produced, making subtle use of the surrounds and LFE for music and ambient sound.
The video transfer is excellent, reproducing the pastel color palette accurately. It emphasizes the lack of detail in the animation at times, but it capably handles the few sweeping scenes with no hint of print damage or compression flaws.
The Cat Returns has decent extras. The Behind the Microphone featurette has interviews with all of the stars, who say how much they love the story. It's typical Disney fluff. Equally fluffy is the production featurette, which tries to make the film sound stronger than it is. This featurette does explain that The Cat Returns wasn't originally intended to be a sequel to Whispers of the Heart, which shows why it doesn't fit in so well. It was tossed to a new director at the studio, which exposes it further as a second-rate attempt. Huroyuki Morita is not a bad director, but how do you follow the consistently great work of Miyazaki and Takahata? The second disc has the original storyboards, which is an interesting inclusion for young animation fans.
I've made The Cat Returns sound worse than it is. The difference between it and most of the other Ghibli films is magic. Most of the other studio Ghibli titles have a subtle, beautiful magic woven through them, making them the best family entertainment produced anywhere in the world. The Cat Returns is about magic, but it's simply not the same. I sincerely hope that the great Japanese studio will find a director to carry on after Hayao Miyazaki, or that Morika will somehow grow into his shoes with a few more projects under his belt. Until then, we will simply have to wait for Howl's Moving Castle and the other Disney releases of the studio's previous work.
Although it's acceptable family entertainment, The Cat Returns should be stripped of the Ghibli logo.
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