The Cat Returns Review
When The Cat Returns received its English language voice dub, Anne Hathaway was cast in the lead role. Though such a decision was no doubt held off until after the film’s production, the presence of the star of The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted does prove instructive. Indeed, just as those films were moulded towards a specific demographic, so too The Cat Returns would appear to be more youth orientated than the standard Ghibli offering. Its two main components – felines and schoolgirls – are decidedly cutesy, whilst the animation design avoids the detailed and tricksy in favour of the bright, the appealing and the expressive.
Not that first time director Hiroyuki Morita lays on the saccharine. Rather he draws us into the film’s world by firstly placing us in the familiar. Thus we meet ordinary schoolgirl Haru and spend some time with her before a good deed – saving a cat from an imminent, not to mention potentially fatal, collision with a truck – results in her being whisked off to the kingdom of cats. As such the anthropomorphism arrives in smaller doses and as such becomes all the more palatable. It is the human aspect which roots The Cat Returns, not the fantastical.
Furthermore, Morita handles this gradual introduction with great care. His strength is to realise that a well-developed but simple idea is far better than a complex one left wanting. Hence tiny moments, such as when we first see a cat stand upright and begin to talk, take on a certain magic that would be lost in a more hectic environment. Indeed, Morita plays more on the implicit than the explicit – the entire hierarchy of the cat world is created through a few well placed character touches here and there – thereby allowing us to make the association and leave him to free to concentrate elsewhere.
In this case, that means a more relaxed approach and therefore a healthy dose of humour. Certainly, it’s on the broad side, but Morita never forces it upon us as is often the case in cute animal-centric animations. Rather if we wish to go with it we can, otherwise we can simply let it skip us by. In fact, the same is also true of The Cat Returns itself. It’s not a film which dazzles us with its ideas in the manner of Studio Ghibli’s best efforts and as such perhaps makes less of an impact. (Note also the length which is considerably shorter than the comparatively epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke.) Indeed, at times it throws up little elements which recall aspects from minor Disney works: Alice in Wonderland, The Rescuers and its sequel, Basil the Great Mouse Detective. Now, of course, a minor Ghibli is generally superior to a minor Disney, though be warned that The Cat Returns doesn’t quite achieve the heights scales by the studio’s best.
Part of Optimum’s Studio Ghibli collection, The Cat Returns comes to DVD in much the same condition as their handling of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. As such the image does suffer from ghosting, but otherwise this is a pleasing release. We get the film in its original aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, whilst the print remains crisp and clean – an element of especial importance in animated releases.
As for the soundtrack we have both the original Japanese DD5.1 mix (with optional subtitles of the yellow variety) and an English DD5.1 offering voice by an all-star cast. As is often true in these cases, it is personal preference which will guide the viewer’s decision, an aspect made all the more probable as there is little to separate the two on a technical level. Indeed, both make impressive use of the various channels and demonstrate no technical flaws.
In terms of extras, these amount to a multi-angle option in which the entire film can be viewed as storyboards, a featurette on its making, plus trailers for the film and other titles in Studio Ghibli range. With regards to the first, this is a welcome addition though one unlikely to viewed in its entirety – rather it is the key scenes which are going to utilise the feature and no so much the quieter moments. As for the featurette, this is a pleasingly chirpy 34-minute guide through the production process which is especially interesting during its early stages. Indeed, we learn that The Cat Returns was initially intended as a 20-minute promo for a theme park, then mutated into a 45-minute straight-to-video piece, before becoming the feature it is today – elements which perhaps explain its comparative lightweight qualities in relation to Ghibli’s other output. (Note that the featurette is in Japanese and comes with optional English subtitles, again of the yellow variety.)