The Cat Returns is a surreal and charming product from Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s production company, even if it isn’t quite on the level of the best work from that company. It was in fact not directed by Miyazaki, but one of his production assistants, Hiroyuki Morita (he worked on Kiki’s Delivery Service and Perfect Blue); consequently, the animation is enchanting, even when the story doesn’t quite soar to the same heights as its Ghibli stable-mates. I’ve said before that even a “minor” movie with major talent is still worth seeing, and this is no exception.
Haru is a young girl having a hard time of it: she’s perpetually late for school, always in trouble, and unlucky in both love and many other things. The only decent thing that’s happened to her lately is when she managed to use her friend’s lacrosse stick to save a cat from being run over by a truck — only to mistakenly smash the stick against a phone pole. Then the cat she just saved stands on its hind legs, thanks her graciously, and walks off. Naturally, no one believes her.
After unknowingly saving the son of the Cat King, Haru finds herself the recipient of his favors... all of them!
Haru’s mother’s inclined to be a little more tolerant of her girl’s odd preoccupations — after all, when Haru was a young girl, she had a habit of talking to the neighborhood strays. That night, however, she’s paid a nocturnal visit by the King of the Cat Kingdom — who arrives surrounded by dozens of retainers, bodyguards, musicians, and his page. The cat she saved earlier was, in fact, the king’s own son, and they are now quite in her debt. They also intend to pay back that debt any way they can, which explains why Haru’s friend wakes up the next morning with dozens of lacrosse sticks on her front doorstep…but that’s not even the beginning of her real trouble. In fact, the Cat King is so enamored of Haru that he’s decided she’ll make a perfect bride for his son, human or not.
This is not what Haru wants to hear at all, and in some despondence she follows the advice of a voice on the wind and enlists the help of “Baron”, a dapper cat who dresses in top hat and tails and is known for lending a hand to those with problems that go beyond the ordinary. Baron is chivalrous and gentle, and Haru realizes with some surprise that she might even be developing a crush on him — again, cat or not. With them go two sidekicks, a helpful and acerbic crow, and another cat, Muta, a ponderously fat grouch who spends about as much time grousing about his lot in life as he does helping out (sort of like C-3PO crossed with Homer Simpson).
It isn’t long before the Cat King’s minions come to whisk Haru away to their world, and Baron has no choice but to give chase. Worse, the more time Haru spends in the Cat Kingdom — and the more inclined she is to say there, which doesn’t sound as hard as you might think — the more she becomes a cat, and makes a marriage all the more possible. Baron then not only has to save her physically, by getting her through a labyrinth to a portal where she can return home, but also to keep her spirits together so she doesn’t devolve completely.
This second part of the film — the whole adventure in the Cat Kingdom — works the least for me, and seems strained and arbitrary instead of magical. I think part of it lies in how the Cat Kingdom is represented: it’s a hodgepodge of topical details that never really seem to mesh. It doesn’t feel like a place where beings, let alone cats, would actually live. The earlier scenes in the real world are so closely observed and so rich with topical detail that they shame the later ones; it should really be the other way around. And the story is also correspondingly thinner: instead of the psychological depth of other Ghibli projects, the movie falls back on Disneyfied “believe in yourself” emotional shorthand to make its points.
Curiously, the scenes in the Cat Kingdom aren't as edifying as the first half of the film,
if only because it somehow just doesn't look as enchanting or convincing.
There, I’ve gotten that out of my system. If the story has its problems, the sheer look of The Cat Returns ought to be more than enough to bring people to it. I love how animators can take the simplest and sometimes most everyday things and raise them to the level of high art. There’s a moment in the film that’s probably not intended as much more than a stopgap between shots — it involves the sun setting between two buildings and setting a whole row of house windows aglow — but the way it is set up and played off is so beautiful, I quit worrying about the movie’s plot for a while. There are many such moments throughout, and they make it more than possible to forgive the somewhat arbitrary story and simply drink in the imagery.
Cat was derived from a comic by Aoi Hiiragi, whose Whisper of the Heart was the basis for one of the best and most moving Ghibli productions. (Muta and Baron were characters in Heart as well, so the connection is clear.) Miyazaki himself wrote the screenplay for Heart, and while I could probably go on all day about how The Cat Returns would have benefited immensely from his golden touch, what we have is really quite good.