The Cat Returns
"Always believe in yourself. Do this, and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear." - The Baron
I can think of no better quote to describe the very message that The Cat Returns aims to show than that of The Baron's own words to the story's lead character, seventeen year old Haru, over tea.
Making its Japanese debut in 2002, The Cat Returns marks the directorial debut of Hiroyuki Morita. The film itself, as viewers will discover after watching the highly insightful "The Making of The Cat Returns," began its life as a pitch from a theme park wanting a short film about cats. The heads of Studio Ghibli looked at 1995's Whisper of the Heart for inspiration and pulled out two characters--the fat cat Muto (a.k.a. Moon) and The Baron, a figurine of a standing cat with a top hat, cane and business suit--in order to work a story around them. Over time, the original plan fell through, but the idea lived on until it blossomed as a feature-length film.
The Cat Returns follows Haru, a vulnerable and clumsy high schooler who selflessly saves a black cat from a tragic fate and unwittingly bites off more catnip than she can chew. As luck would have it, the cat turns to able to talk and comes from quite a regal background, as he's none other than Prince Loon of the Cat Kingdom. Haru's life is soon showered with an assortment of "gifts", including a lifetime supply of lacrosse sticks, a yard full of cattails and a one-way ticket to the Cat Kingdom to wed the prince himself!
It's that last part that Haru has the most problem with and a voice soon leads her to the Cat Bureau where she befriends the gentlemanly Baron, fat cat Muto and the crotchety crow Toto. Unfortunately for Haru, she's soon catnapped and taken to the Cat Kingdom where her form slowly begins to erode into something more...feline. Take special note of the word "catnapped" in that last line as that is actually the title of another cat-themed anime that deals with slightly similar events and are both equally fun-filled.
Animation wise, The Cat Returns uses a more traditional anime style that is frequently seen in TV shows, which uses limited shadows and solid colors applied to computer painted cels. At certain times, the images come off as being flat, but it does strive to keep remarkably close to the shoujo look of Aoi Hiiragi's Baron: The Cat Returns manga--a title thankfully coming Stateside this Spring from VIZ. The backgrounds and landscapes, especially that of the breathtaking labyrinth seen in the movie's second half, more than make up for any lack of detail seen in the cast.
One thing that I had extremely high hopes for and definitely came away happy with was the English dub. Sure, everyone likes to fault Disney for sitting on their Studio Ghibli films, but I absolutely love the time and attention that Disney takes with their dub tracks. No better place is this showcased than in the DVD's short, yet insightful "Behind the Microphone". It's always fun to hear from an all-star cast that you're familiar with from film and television talking about the insight that they received from working to redub a film and how closely it mirrors that of ADR (Advanced Dialogue Replacement) work.
Anne Hathaway's little laughs and distinctive voice instantly lend itself to Haru in such a way that it seems that she was the one who originally performed the character. The same can be said for Cary Elwes with his British portrayal of The Baron--a role that I hope he is able to reprise in Disney's future release of Whisper of the Heart. Peter Boyle and Elliott Gould are also excellent as Muto and Toto respectively, but it's the voice of Tim Curry as the king that I was most surprised to hear. Disney is the undisputed master of the voice talent pool and there is no disputing that they have the best dubs in the world over.
Rounding out the two-disc collection are a fine number of extras. I've mentioned the "Behind the Microphone" and "Making of" segments earlier, but complete Japanese trailers are also included on the first disc. As with all past Studio Ghibli releases, the second disc is dedicated entirely to presenting the film's storyboards. They're worth a quick scan, but only budding animators and anal-retentive fans should sit through the entire film in this fashion. A solid collection overall, but one extra has eluded the Region 1 release and that is the short film entitled Ghiblies Episode II. It was released theatrically alongside this film in Japan and it appears on the Region 2 DVD, but the short was not a part of the original licensing deal, and thus, it is not included.
Even though The Cat Returns may not rank up there as my favorite Studio Ghibli film--an honor that shall forever be reserved for Whisper of the Heart and it's plot about a budding writer--it is still one of those special movies that has the magic to never let you down and to always bring a smile to your face and have you laughing out loud in no time.