In Defense of The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns often goes neglected in the Studio Ghibli catalog. Some deem it mediocre. Others say it’s mildly amusing but inferior to its relatives. After all, Ghibli made its name with many landmark films: Porco Rosso, Grave of the Fireflies, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Only Yesterday, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and, oh hell, just about every Ghibli feature that isn’t the underrated Ocean Waves or the justly rated Tales From Earthsea. Among such marvels, The Cat Returns is a small creation indeed.

For one thing, it’s the shortest film in Ghibli’s ranks, as it developed originally as a theme park attraction and side-story to Whisper of the Heart. Its look is much closer to typical anime imagery, with generic large eyes and exaggerated grins instead of the distinct and slightly subtler aesthetic one sees from Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata as well as anyone who follows in their wake. It was primarily a vehicle to test younger animators, including its director, Hiroyuki Morita. The Cat Returns is an undemanding and uncomplicated hiccup in Ghibli history, as it lacks the emotional depth and sure-handed craft found in the studio’s best offerings.

It’s a wonderful movie anyway.

In all fairness, The Cat Returns begins in a flurry of clich├ęs, and our heroine Haru stumbles over every one of them. She has a crush on a classmate. She has a best friend to tease her. She has a habit of rushing out the door, late for school. One morning, in a sudden and stupid decision that everyone wishes they could make, Haru risks her life to rescue a cat from an oncoming truck. She doesn’t quite understand why she did it, and she certainly doesn’t understand why the cat stands up and politely thanks her.

That night, the answer arrives with a huge procession of talking, civilized felines at her front door, and they reveal that Haru rescued the prince of the Cat Kingdom that day. Her reward? A legion of cat-servants to bring her unwanted gifts, dote embarrassingly upon her, and, on nothing but an idle conversation, whisk her off to the Cat Kingdom to marry the strangely absent prince.

Her only help comes from the dapper cat hero known as the Baron (first seen as an inspiring statuette in the more down-to-earth Whisper of the Heart) and his quarrelsome allies: a fat cat named Muza and a crow named Toto. They can’t keep the Cat Kingdom from abducting Haru, though, and soon she’s facing not only an arranged marriage but also the prospect of becoming a cat herself.

At a mere 75 minutes, The Cat Returns has little room for anything but the basics. Haru begins as an insecure young woman dissatisfied with her life, and only after a whirlwind adventure in a realm of talking cats and deadly labyrinths does she find her feet. It’s an open-and-shut story, skipping from one comical scene to another, never settling long enough for us to question the why of it or ask just what the movie’s trying to say.

In other words, The Cat Returns never has time to be anything but adorable. With no mind for labored meanings, it whisks us from Haru’s humdrum morning to the Baron’s miniature cottage to the inner workings of the Cat Kingdom. Once Haru’s trapped there, we’re treated to some hilarious failures of throne-room entertainment and a clash between the Baron and the forces of the spiky-furred, half-goofy, half-mad King of the Cats.

It’s ultimately all in good fun, and no one seems to get hurt—not even the cats thrown out of the king’s tower. You can read into things easily, seeing Haru as feminist assertion and the king as a tyrannical facade of masculine tradition and the whole thing as an allegory for the second Defenestration of Prague, but the movie never asks that you do. If The Cat Returns doesn’t define its genre or inspire imitators like the action of Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, it hardly needs to go that far. It wins us over with characters immediately sympathetic and a tone effortlessly cute. It has the smooth wit of a good adventure yarn or a perfect bedtime story…or perhaps a little fable told by Whisper of the Heart’s protagonist Shizuku Tsukishima. She wanted to be a writer, after all, and it’s comforting to think that she would come up with something like The Cat Returns.

The less Ghibli-esque look of The Cat Returns actually improves its English dub. Disney regularly went all-out in recruiting talent for the voicework in Ghibli films, but there’s a frequently uptight air about them. The movies themselves are thoughtful, studied, and serious—and so are the dubs. The Cat Returns has none of that. The looser, standard anime fashion makes for a more easygoing script and quicker delivery, and the cast is first-rate: Anne Hathaway is excellent in all of Haru’s insecurities, Kristen Bell does a great job with a limited best-friend role, and Cary Elwes is charming as The Baron. Special credit must go to Rene Auberjonois as the uptight cat minister Natori and Andy Richter as the more unctuous Natoru, who’s almost the real villain here.

Morita departed Studio Ghibli without directing another film there, giving more fuel to the company’s reputation for casting aside directors with little mercy. In light of recent discussion over Takahata’s brutal demands, however, it’s perhaps fortunate enough that Morita didn’t work himself to death. He went on to direct the solidly disturbing Bokurano Ours, perhaps the polar opposite of a cuddly escapade like The Cat Returns.

Studio Ghibli’s future beyond its founders seems in doubt, and even if it survives they’ll likely never again try something short and low-key like The Cat Returns. That makes it all the more valuable, I think. It’s a simple delight in a field of movies all more polished and mostly better—and yet not as fun in the same carefree fashion. The Cat Returns certainly isn’t the best of Ghibli’s lineup. But who cares? It’s the most immediately entertaining.