The Cat Returns Review
|Based upon Aoi Hiragi's manga, "Baron - Neko no Danshaku" and sharing characters from 1995's Whisper of the Heart, though not to be considered a sequel, The Cat Returns is Studio Ghibli's 2002 effort, following on from the highly successful Spirited Away - a film which did monumentally well both domestically and overseas. The Cat Returns however has had little fuss made over it, curious when to this reviewer at least it is every bit as entertaining, if not more so than the aforementioned title which offered a more challenging theme for what is essentially a film meant to be enjoyed by the whole family, but then Ghibli's ability to be able to appeal to all ages has always been admirable..
Perhaps the reason that The Cat Returns hasn't kicked up more of a fuss in the West then is because Miyazaki or Takahata don't direct or that it was never going to be considered as a serious rival. Instead those rights have gone to Hiroyuki Morita who had worked for Ghibli on the animated film My Neighbours the Yamadas. While not as prolific a director as Miyazaki and Isao Takahata who would alternate between films, Morita has a firm hold of what makes good storytelling. The Cat Returns may be too simplistic for those more accustomed to Miyazaki's exertive, symbolic and metaphorical efforts but let that not stop it from providing 75-minutes of pure, fairytale fantasy.
Our story takes place in modern Japan. Haru, a schoolgirl who has a hard time getting on at school, due her often clumsy nature and inability to settle down and stand high with confidence is about to get the shock of her life one fateful day. While out walking with her friend, Hiromi she sees a cat walk through town, carrying a small present in its mouth. As she looks on with curiosity the cat crosses the road, not seeing that a truck is heading its way. Haru immediately jumps into action, saving the cat from an almost certain death. As an act of gratitude the cat thanks her before disappearing. Haru suddenly realises that she can communicate with cats and recalls a time when she helped out a stray as a child. Soon afterward Haru receives a visit from another strange cat, this time informing her that The Cat King wishes for her to marry his son, the prince - the same cat whom she had saved. Haru turns down the offer, which unfortunately goes in one ear and out of the other where the king's concerned. The only way Haru can hope to get out of this bizarre situation is to visit the "Cat's Bureau Office". Haru is told to meet a fat, white cat who will lead her to this place and soon she meets him, his name is Muta. Haru soon arrives at the bureau, where she meets a cat who introduces himself as Baron Humbert Von Gikkingen. Haru explains her situation and the baron kindly offers to do what he can. No sooner do they sit down to tea and cake when Haru is whisked away by The Cat King's servants. Her destination - The Kingdom of Cats. The baron, Muta and Toto chase after her but in the meantime she must learn to believe in herself until she can make it back home.
|The most immediate thing about The Cat Returns is its familiar themes, simple as they may be. The story tells of someone who considers them self as an outcast who might better be suited in a different kind of place. Haru still has to go through the changes that are often fixated upon in numerous Ghibli productions, though its rights of passage and motifs may be far less inclined but ultimately it is a tale of finding confidence within yourself and accepting the person you are. It's really that simple and being reminiscent of such classics as Alice in Wonderland the film manages to whisk the viewer to a land far away, that is both charming, warm and many a time hilarious. In fact I can't recall the last time I saw such a funny Ghibli film. Ghibli films have always struck me as being far more poignant, playful yet dramatic, never really becoming farcical in any broad sense. Rather that task is left to its television series output though I'm sure Pom Poko and Porco Rosso would get some shout outs. The Cat Returns however is probably Ghibli's most light hearted tale since My Neighbour Totoro. When looking at Ghibli's output it is interesting to see that as Miyazaki ages so does the maturity of his tales, fundamentality keeping that same core but tackling issues in different ways. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and his latest Howl's Moving Castle (the latter of which I've yet to see) all seem far more adult then the studio's earlier output. Which brings us back to The Cat Returns, which is as comically a feel good film as you could ever want. We have The King of Cats who is downright hilarious, not just when he's talking like a hipster, with "babe" following every sentence but also in the way he runs his kingdom, right up to punishing his servants by having them thrown out of the highest castle window, to an Earth shattering death. It might not sound it but trust me when I say it's a morbidly fascinating approach to the subject but the reason it works so well is because of its comic timing. The Cat Returns is astute, it pulls no punches, it sets up gags and it carries them out in great fashion, I defy any viewer not to sit through this without a big smile on their face from start to finish and yet with such a slight run time it still manages to choke us up and give us an all round safe journey.|
|Also absent from this production but not missed let me assure you is composer Joe Hisaishi who is of course famous for providing the scores for many of Miyazaki's features. In place we have Yuuji Nomi, a young composer with a strong sense of the subject at hand. For The Cat Returns, Nomi brings about a change in his score that reflects that of the films' main character, Haru. Like Haru's personality and the situations she finds herself in the score adjusts appropriately during these changes and the progression of the story. Each character has his or her little theme to identify with and the actions that take place are carried through in suitable fashion. Nomi’s score is both fresh and inventive, never one to repeat itself too often, a case that I've found many a time with Hisaishi's efforts, which despite being enjoyable are all too repetitive at times, generally preferring to stick with a theme that is then played around with to create variations. Nomi on the other hand chooses to change the score; it grows with the films before culminating with the charming song "Kaze Ni Naru" sung by Ayano Tsuji, which played prominently again on Japanese radio during the following summer when the DVD was released. It’s this reserved yet self aware approach that sees The Cat Returns come away with a score deserving of most Ghibli features.
And what of style? It has plenty. While it lacks a larger budget the animation is no less detailed than some of Ghibli finest works The Cat Returns still achieves plenty when it comes to showing creative flair. Not only is it always nice to see some good old fashioned hand drawn anime it's great to see it being handled so well. The film is lush, awash with pastel shades of the utmost brilliance, reflecting the tone of the film fittingly. The animation itself is often glorious, it's clearly been painted with love and like they say all things are best when given a loving touch. Visually The Cat Returns proves this much, as if being swept up by its story isn't enough to make you forget about the visuals, it just has to present the odd surprise to make you sit back and smile at its technical wonder. Here Miyazaki produces so to expect anything less would be foolish indeed, he may not be behind the camera but he's certainly around enough to not let the film go to waste.
The Cat Returns makes its R1 debut, courtesy of Walt Disney Home Entertainment, who presents this special 2-disc edition.
| If it were not for the very slightest of niggles this would be reference quality. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced anamorphically the transfer is nigh on stunning, absolutely pristine if not for two things. First of all there is edge enhancement I'm sorry to say, yes even on a film this recent but then that's never stopped companies from using it. I view on a 28 inch set up and it's all too apparent here, worse still on a pc. The only other drawback occurs as the final credits role. There is an evident amount of mosquito noise on each kanji/English text as they scroll (depending on the track you select depends on how the final credits look). I'm not quite sure why this is so as throughout the rest of the movie it's barely noticeable, but it is there. You'll find the compression to be more of a problem when viewing on a monitor though, rather than a TV set. Aside from these issues the film looks gorgeous. The pastel colours I mentioned before are radiant; everything looks beautiful with such enormous clarity and fine detail. You can pick out every little nuance and shape and as much character as the scenery will allow.
Moving over to the audio side of things I'm happy to say that we have equally good representation. Presented here are Japanese, English and French 5.1 tracks. With a release such as this you have to check both tracks really so I viewed the film in Japanese and English. I'm not always a strict purist when it comes to preference over original language and newly created dubs, in fact there are some anime that I stand by as having far superior English dubs to their Japanese counterparts, with notable praise being given to Tenchi Muyo and Photon: The Idiot Adventures, come to think of it most AIC English dubs are pretty damn fine. To get back on point one mustn't scoff when it comes to Ghibli dubs either. Often they're given a good amount of respect, some are better than others but in all they're far from awful. A superb cast has been put together for this release. Cary Elwes provides the voice of the baron and does that English accent he does so very well, while supporting him are Elliot Gould and Peter Boyle in equally fine performances. The leading lady herself, Anne Hathaway gives Haru a nice vocal range and also comes away clean, not to mention Tim Curry as King Cat who fits into his role perfectly. Not a lot to fault really. If I had a preference then yes it would be toward the Japanese dub, mainly because it just has that right feel, its secondary and third characters are far better suited vocally (particularly Notoru, whose English voice is provided by Andy Richter, which isn't performed badly, it's just not suiting enough) and I tend to get more emotionally wrapped up in the whole thing. But I'll stand by both tracks, they're both very well done and I can't imagine either upsetting anyone. When it gets down to the sonics the 5.1 surrounds do a tremendous job in separating everything. There's a lot of atmosphere surrounding the film, with the music sounding lovely throughout, dialogue clean and clear and special effects really making use of those rears.
Now I don't usually give subtitles their own little heading but in the case of this review and for those of you who I know so desperately want to find out about the subtitles I have done so. Before anybody starts getting abrasive let me tell you that these subs are closer to the English dub than the original Japanese, though they stay very close in essence to their source. This is a good translation and by now we all know never to expect completely accurate dubs, in reality that is practically impossible when getting to the meanings of certain things and as standard practice syllables should fit mouth movements when dubbing. Things really aren't as bad as they sound but to give an idea of what I mean I shall list some examples. So, as far as things go the slight difference between the subtitles and the English and Japanese dubs are minor things, nothing that interferes with the story but stay closer to the English lines, trust me. These may be considered spoilers so feel free to skip through though I'd say there's little to worry about:
Ex. 1: When Haru first sees Muta he runs away from her to which she shouts "Chotto matte!" Simply translated this means wait. It does not translate to "please wait, slow down" as written in the subtitles and performed vocally by the actress.
Ex. 2: When Haru confronts King Cat and rejects his proposal she can be heard finishing up her cry with "Kono hentai neko" which roughly translates as perverted cat, which makes sense after he keeps hitting on her. For the English dub and subtitle track we end up with "Nobody decided who I am but me, and there's no way (on Earth - vocal) I’d ever marry you!"
As you can see the word pervert is omitted entirely.
Ex. 3: Toward the end Haru simply says "Arigato", meaning thank you. For the English vocal and subtitle track this is translated to "I'll miss you". Well that's obviously wrong.
These are the kinds of example that crop up throughout but I say they're nothing to worry about, they don't hinder the story in any way and as far as I can tell the translation is very close. The subs are also raised slightly higher than I'd like but other than that they're easy to read, coming in a bold yellow font.
| Behind the Microphone (8:58)
Although brief this featurette is interesting enough but it only takes us behind the scenes of the English dubbing sessions. We have brief interviews with Anne Hathaway who has enjoyed herself and had to get used to screaming a lot. Cary Elwes also features and talks about being brought on due to his ability to create a fine aristocratic voice, he then talks in brief about the dubbing process which entails a lot of work in syncing up sounds. Peter Boyle talks about playing a fat cat and trying to match his performance to that of the Japanese counterpart, while Elliot Gould chats about having never done this kind of thing before but found himself lapping it up. Finally Tim Curry joins in and unlike Peter Boyle he talks about trying not to be like the Japanese character but trying to find something more accessible for the Western viewer, choosing to portray King Cat as an aging hippy.
The Making of The Cat Returns (34:10)
Narrated by Cary Elwes this little documentary offers an insight into the production of the film, starting with its initial conception which began with Aoi Hiraga's original story. From here we learn of the proposal made to Ghibli to take two small characters from Whisper from the Heart and place them into a full length animated feature. More importantly Miyazaki explains that he wanted a new director for the film and when they decided upon Morita he went on to create a stunning 500+ page storyboard treatment, immediately impressing Miyazaki and Takahata. From here the animation process is looked at and the actors are introduced. If I say any more there'll be no point in the reader watching it.
Trailers and TV Spots (4:36)
The original Japanese trailers can be viewed as one segment. There are no subtitles for this and its Japanese dialogue only. These are presented non-anamorphically and suffer from aliasing.
Disc 2 :
Original Japanese Storyboards (75:04)
These run for the entire duration of the film. You can choose to listen in English 5.1 or Japanese 5.1, as well as selecting subtitles on or off but there is no functioning multi-angle (as found on the Asian DVD releases). This is the storyboards only and if you're interested in seeing just how much hard work Hiroyuki Morita put into this project then they're well worth a watch.
The Cat Returns is a joyful and emotional film, filled with lovable characters and beautiful scenery. It might be simple but it packs a lot of charm and its films like this that remind me why I love anime so much.
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
6 out of 10