January 25, 2006

The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns is the most light-hearted and purely comedic of Studio Ghibli films. It is a sequel to Whispers of the Heart (1995), to the extent that two secondary characters (the cats), The Baron and Muta, are here principal characters. Otherwise it’s a standalone effort, though the English title might make a bit more sense if Whisper of the Heart had been released first. The Japanese title, Neko no Ongaeshi, translates as "The Gift of the Cats," or more specifically, "the gift that keeps on giving whether you like it or not."

The story begins with Haru (Anne Hathaway) rescuing a cat from getting run over by a truck. The cat turns out to be the son of the King of the Cats (Tim Curry, as a kind of unreformed 1950s hipster), who decides he likes this kid and that she’d make a good daughter-in-law. After failing to persuade her with presents, such as dozens of little gift boxes stuffed with mice, they kidnap her and drag her off to the Kingdom of the Cats, an Alice in Wonderland place where Haru finds herself shrinking to cat proportions herself.

It is then up to The Baron (Cary Elwes), along with Muta (Peter Boyle) and a giant crow (Elliot Gould) to rescue her. At this point the movie very much turns in a cat version of an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, made even sillier by a steady stream of sight gags (made funnier by the fact that they’re all--cats!) that veer off into Coyote & Roadrunner territory. The film’s one significant failing is that, unlike Miyazaki’s carefully realized fantasy worlds, the internal workings of the Kingdom of the Cats quickly lose any logic further than the next joke.

Still, they’re pretty good jokes and, after all, this is director Hiroyuki Morita’s first feature effort. You have to applaud a Studio Ghibli project determined not to take itself seriously in the slightest. And Morita does rein things in sufficiently in the denouement to deliver the requisite object lesson without too much saccharine.

And to give credit where it’s due, Disney has again done an outstanding job producing a dub track every bit the equal of the original, which is frankly always a bit surprising considering Disney’s seemingly grudging indifference to the Ghibli library it spent a hefty sum licensing. Someone there must be determined to do it right or not do it at all. To top it off, they brought Cary Elwes back for the far superior Whisper of the Heart, a truly wonderful movie about books and writing and imagination.

The theme song for The Cat Returns was written and performed by Ayano Tsuji. NPR interviewed her on its Weekend Edition 21 January 2006 program. You can listen to the audio here. The Studio Ghibli production of Whispers of the Heart is based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. A magazine like Cricket really should serialize it. It'd be perfect for a pre-teen female audience.

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