Haru Yoshioka is a mature high school girl with a lot of bad luck, she wakes up late for school, has a crush on a guy who is already dating someone and is prone to a few accidents here and there. Her day suddenly turns from unlucky to bizarre when she rescues a strange looking cat crossing the road from a truck, as it stands on two legs and thanks her for saving his life, all to her amazement and disbelief. The following day, she finds out from other talking cats that arrive at her door that the cat she rescued is Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. To show his thanks and gratitude, the Cat King arranges Haru to be taken to the Cat Kingdom so she can take Lune’s hand in marriage. Haru doesn’t like the idea of marrying a cat, but unfortunately she is unable to refuse the arrangement. A soft voice calls to her and tells Haru to find the Cat Office Bureau where she can meet the Baron, a statue that comes to life at sundown. After meeting with the Baron and his friends, Haru is taken away to the Cat Kingdom, and it is up to the Baron, his overweight assistant Muta, the crow statue Toto and Haru herself to get out of this unwanted marriage and leave the Cat Kingdom to head back home.
In 1999, a Japanese theme park gave a proposal to Studio Ghibli for a 20 minute short animated film that involved cats for one of their rides, Hayao Miyazaki was interested and started writing a story for it. The idea of cats reminded him of Whisper of the Heart, a 1995 film which he produced. This gave him the intention to add three key elements to the Cat Project: The Baron, Muta and an antique shop. He commissioned the original author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari to create a manga version, which Miyazaki would base the short on. Soon after this, the theme park decided to cancel the proposal, but Miyazaki wanted to continue with the project, so he wanted to extend the short to test future directors. After showing creative work and ideas from My Neighbour the Yamadas, producer Toshio Suzuki decided to place Hiroyuki Morita as the director. He wrote a 525 page storyboard for the film, which impressed both Miyazaki and Suzuki that they decide to make this a feature length film. It was released on July 19th 2002, and is technically the only Studio Ghibli that is a follow up from a past film.
The animation is once again well done for Studio Ghibli, there is a lot of minor detail in animation and it appears very realistic. The cats are done really well in detail, and it looks really accurate when they appear, walking on two legs instead of four. Lip movements are also good for anime standards, being accurate for Japanese dialogue. There are some really striking scenes; two noticeable is a cat march which is almost haunting but mesmerizing at the same time, with the lights and a large group of cats moving slowly through the streets. Another noticeable scene is a ballroom scene, which has such close detail that all the spectators of the dance turn their heads so their eyes are focused on the dancing couple Haru and Baron. The use of colours on the background is very calm and light, with a good variety. The character designs are accurate as expected, but for some odd reason the film doesn’t really have consistency for skin colour for, with the common skin colour is a very light pale colour, with the occasional light brown and rose pink tones, which isn’t really a big problem but I was always wondering if most of the humans in the film were just sick or stay out of the sun a lot.
The music is very nice and definitely set the scenes. There a good amount of silent scenes to focus of the characters, but music plays at the right time when needed and some of it is really dramatic, and the two really striking and memorable scenes both have scores which add to the drama and tension of the scenes. Another good track is the ending theme performed by Ayano Tsuji, which is really lovely to listen to and end off the film, with a ukulele as the main instrument and sweet charming lyrics to go with it.
The Japanese voice cast is really good, with some great vocal works from Tetsu Watanabe as Muta, giving a low pitch fit for like a bodyguard, Mari Hamada as the overly excited secretary Natoru and Tetsurō Tanba as the old and grouchy King of Cats, just to name a few. Yoshihiko Hakamada does a nice job as the Baron, acting gentlemanly and very suave, although I do miss the voice of the Baron from Whisper of the Heart, Chizuru Ikewaki does a good job as Haru, but I don’t think she really elevates her voice enough, so when she screams it sounds quite weak.
The English cast is pretty hit-and-miss overall, with some roles sounding awkwardly bad or practically have flaws with them. One example if Andy Richter as Natoru, mainly because they decided to give a male voice to the character instead of a female in the Japanese version, but since he does a really good effort, with a cute voice like a really flamboyant secretary then it isn’t a big problem. Tim Curry I think was a really weird choice for the King of Cats, mainly because he makes him sound like an overweight Jazz musician and for the most part was really off putting. I don’t think the cast is bad overall, since there are some good performances done by actors such as Anne Hathaway as Haru and Judy Greer as the pretty white-furred Royal servant Yuki, and Cary Elwes actually reprises his role as The Baron, which I think is extra credit for an English Studio Ghibli voice casting.
What makes the film worth the watch is the characters, every character has something likeable whether they are funny, intimidating, or in the case of Haru, very relatable, or in the case of the Baron, how awesome he is. In almost every scene he’s in he is either very polite or such a bad ass. The Cat King as a villain isn’t really taken very far, but he is very comical and dedicated to say the least. While it isn’t as long as other Studio Ghibli films but the story itself is well written and progresses at an even pace so I doubt that the film would have been any better at a larger length without purposely dragging the story. I think the only problem with this film, and other people have mentioned this also, is that the overall moral of the story is over used and out of place. While I find it more of a problem in the English version and how it was written in, even in the Japanese version you can’t watch 20 minutes at least without either Haru, Muta or the Baron saying that it’s important to be yourself, speak your mind and do what you think is right and while it is somewhat relevant to the plot, I don’t think it was necessary to place it directly into the dialogue and use it more than once.
Overall, The Cat Returns is a very charming film that is very lovely from beginning to end; there are a great variety of likeable characters with some really memorable scenes and an ageless storyline.
The Cat Returns is available from Walt Disney and Optimum. The manga of which the film was based on titled “Baron: The Cat Returns” written by the author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari, upon the request of Hayao Miyazaki, is available from Viz Media.