Before President Snow, there was another crazed dictator with an affinity for booby trapping his capital, and he happens to be a cat. In this edition of Creations of Chaos, it’s Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns.
Director : Hiroyuki Morita
Writer : Reiko Yoshida
Release Date : 2002
Version Watched : English Dubbed
Haru is not having a good day, and it is about to get worse as she notices a cat making a deadly trek across a busy road. Not wanting to see the cat become road kill, Haru risks her own safety to save the cat.
That evening, Haru is greeted by a cat procession that delivers the Cat King to her doorstep. Haru learns that she did not save just any cat. She saved Lune, Prince of the Cat Kingdom. The Cat King is extremely grateful and to show his gratitude, the cat kingdom will send Haru a series of gifts.
Unfortunately for Haru, the cats bestow upon her gifts that cats would love, like pockets filled with catnip, and a locker filled with mice. Disappointed that Haru does not appear to appreciate her gifts, the Cat King decides that the greatest gift would be the gift of a husband, and he will not take no for an answer. Haru is kidnapped and whisked away to the Cat Kingdom in preparation to marry Prince Lune. Just as she argues that she is a human and can’t marry a cat, Haru begins a feline transformation.
With the help of a few new friends, Haru must escape the Cat Kingdom by dawn or remain a cat, and a prisoner, forever.
Imagine if two genius directors sat down and told you that they were thinking about letting you join the genius team as an heir apparent for when they retire. All you have to do is successfully direct a full length animated film. This is essentially what happened to Hiroyuki Morita, director of The Cat Returns. The film is Studio Ghibli’s first and to date only sequel/ spin off. It is based on The Baron and Muta, two cat characters from Whisper of the Heart. Hiroyuki Morita worked as an animator on Studio Ghibli films, but this was his first attempt at being in charge of an entire project. I cannot fathom the stress.
The settings are wonderfully inventive. The fact that somewhere there is a whole kingdom where cats live, rule, and act more or less like people, is hugely appealing. The Cat Kingdom is a beautiful place that is also a bit off, much like Wonderland for Alice. You’d want to visit, but you wouldn’t want live there.
The Cat Bureau is pretty neat too. Full sized Haru having tea in The Baron’s cat sized house was a scene that gave me a little thrill of joy.Who wouldn’t want to have a proper tea with talking cats?
Also artistic creations, like The Baron, that are made with so much passion that they are imbued with souls could be an entire film all on its own.
The characters have a lot of personality. The Baron is a proper British gentleman, who wields his cane like a sword. You can’t blame cat Haru for developing a bit of a crush on the dashing, snappily dressed cat.
Muta could easily go head to head with grumpy cat for who is the grumpiest, or compete with Garfield in an eating contest. Mostly he’s a giant ball of fluff with a heart of gold.
Studio Ghibli has some very interesting, complicated, villains, the Cat King as a villain is pretty one dimensional, but he is probably Studio Ghibli’s most fun villain. He’s completely deranged and enjoys booby trapping his capital. He’s the bonkers dictator that you kinda love.
The film is delightfully weird. The Cat Returns has a great bizarre vibe. The cat procession is eerie.
There are odd, dark moments, like the fate of some of the entertainers and guests at the feast, and Muta perishing in a bowl of jelly. I appreciated that they didn’t go cutesy with a world ruled by fluffy kitties. It’s a peculiar, ominous world.
There isn’t anything that is bad about The Cat Returns, but there are a few things that are just okay.
The overall message of the film is to believe in yourself. Haru finds it hard to be herself, and starts to become complacent, thinking that life would be easier if she becomes someone, or in her case, something else. It’s a brilliant theme and concept, but it is unrealized in the film. I felt like there was so much more they could have done with developing Haru’s complacency so that when she believes in herself at the end there is a more satisfying pay off.
There is a lack of depth and detail both in the story and in the animation compared to other Studio Ghibli films.
Though he continues to be an animator for Studio Ghibli, Hiroyuki Morita has not directed another Studio Ghibli film. I’m not sure if he decided that the director gig wasn’t for him, or if he did not get a thumbs up from the two genius directors.
The Cat Returns is definitely worth a watch. It’s actually a good introduction to Ghibli for kids (just let them know that Muta isn’t really dead in the jelly). It’s shorter than the other Studio Ghibli films, it moves quickly, it’s creative, and it’s a whole lot of fun.