3 , 2004
is a typical high school student, good natured, a little clumsy,
always sleeping past the snooze alarm and rushing to school late.
One day, while walking home with her best friend, talking about
boys, she spots a cat carrying a small package. The cat crosses
the street and unwittingly into the path of a truck; Haru quickly
charges into traffic and scoops the cat from danger. She crashes
into a sidewalk bush, and as she recovers, the cat slowly rises
on his hind legs, and begins to talk.
starts an enjoyable little romp called The Cat Returns,
Studio Ghibli’s 2002 release. The story is something of a
very loose spin-off of the great Whisper
of the Heart, featuring two reoccurring characters: Muta,
a very smug and very fat cat, and The Baron, a cat statue that comes
to life every evening. The script is based on a story by Aoi Hiiragi
called Neko no Danshaku, Baron. Hiiragi is also the author
of the original Whisper manga, but this is a very different
story. Instead of a romantic coming-of-age tale, The Cat Returns
is a more typical fantasy in a somewhat generic style.
by-the-numbers feel of this film is understandable; this is director
Hiroyuki Morita’s first feature film. He’s a young filmmaker,
having worked as a key animator on My Neighbors
the Yamadas and an in-between animator for Kiki’s
Delivery Service. The Cat Returns is a project
that was handed down by Hiyao Miyazaki to the studio’s younger
artists, and was largely left alone by the old masters. That leaves
Morita, and scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, free to test his wings on
a lower-priority picture; goodness knows it would be cruel to expect
him to fully follow-up Spirited Away,
the highest-grossing Japanese film in history.
does a fairly decent job. The story involves Haru, who is hounded
by cats who wish to drag her off to the mythical Kingdom of Cats,
and meet the King who wishes to marry her to his son (the cat she
rescued). Haru entertains flights of fancy, but ultimately resists,
and seeks the help of Muta and The Baron. Hilarity ensues. Haru
is taken to the Kingdom of Cats and slowly becomes one herself.
More hilarity ensues. There are some chases, some witty dialog,
some cheap gags, and the typical believe-in-yourself moral lesson
before the final escape back home.
backgrounds and artwork are wonderfully bright and detailed, like
every other Ghibli release; the movie is almost split down the middle,
between the crowded city and the ancient, rural cat kingdom. I also
really enjoy the design of the characters themselves. Haru isn’t
drawn in the same style as Miyazaki or Takahata, but is a little
different. There’s a sharper look that’s lighter on
the details (much in the style of Japanese watercolors), but bright,
sharp, urban. I’d like to see more animation in this style;
everything’s just unique enough to stand out.
after Spirited Away (just about the best-looking animated
movie ever made), Cat Returns feels a little cheaper and
lower-budget, almost direct-to-video. Animation is a touch choppier
than you’d expect, especially later in the cat kingdom. There
are touches of computer animation here and there, but it’s
all a little disjointed.
Cat Returns is clearly inferior to the classics in the Ghibli
canon, and I've discovered that my enthusiasm for it has waned over
the past year. This picture just isn't about anything,
except talking cats and a load of cartoon gags that have been done
before in a thousand Disney cartoons. The
shots cut just a moment too soon, the story’s two halves seem
stitched together, seemingly important plot points are just dropped,
and there are a couple sequences practically ripped off of Whisper
of the Heart and Nausicaa.
You just imagine to yourself the possibilities, if only the script
went through one more rewrite.
don’t wish to be overtly critical, but offer advice. I’m
eager to see how this young director progresses. He is, after all,
working underneath two of cinema’s master filmmakers (and
both Miyazaki and Takahata didn't unleash their genius until after
many years in the business). You can almost imagine Morita working
with a checklist on this movie. Stunning backgrounds? Check. Confident,
strong-willed heroine? Check. Clever chase scenes? Check. Quiet
moments? Check. Subtle character movements, stumbles, and double-takes
littered about? Check. Insanely catchy song at the movie’s
end that stays in your head for days? Check and check.
Cat Returns proved a success at the Japanese box office (it
was the top-grossing film of 2002), and I suspect it would be successful
in America. It has cats, and the lightweight, straight-to-video
feel should make it easily accessible in the States. Goodness knows
parents will be more than happy with the DVD, since Totoro
will seemingly never be released in this country.
that's another schpiel entirely.