The Cat Returns is mildly related to Whisper of the Heart, my personal favourite film, although not a sequel of any kind. In Whisper, the main character is inspired by a statuette (a cat called the Baron) to write a fantasy story about it – so you can think of Cat Returns as being a possible story that she could have written. If you found this film through it’s association with Whisper and are expecting to see Shizuku and Seiji, well, you won’t find them. What you’ll find is a short and sweet fantasy story with endearing characters and a wonderful sense of imagination. It isn’t one of the best Ghibli films, but it is enjoyable for what it is.
A young girl (Haru) saves a cat crossing the road one day, and to her surprise, the cat bows to her and thanks her. The next day, she is visited by a procession of feline royalty who invites her to the Cat Kingdom in gratitude for her bravery. In its basic structure, the film resembles Spirited Away, with a normal girl suddenly finding herself in a strange and unfamiliar world with unfamiliar people (well, cats). This film isn’t as hefty in imagination as Spirited Away or, say, Castle in the Sky, nor does it have the wonderful character work of Whisper of the Heart or Omohide Poroporo. Instead, it’s more like a straightforward and charming fable, and if you come searching for the next Ghibli masterpiece, you may be disappointed. It doesn’t match most other Ghibli films on the level of emotional involvement, and while at the end, we see Haru having changed for the better, the journey isn’t quite as powerful as the conclusion implies.
However, not being among the best Ghiblies does not imply it’s a bad film. If you come to have your imagination stimulated, you’ll be rewarded. There are some a lot of great scenes throughout the film, such as an oversized Haru fitting into the Baron’s miniature house, which are bolstered by very pleasing visuals and animation (as expected by Studio Ghibli). The film also has a great sense of humour, particularly between Haru and Moon, the oversized cat from Whisper who returns as a grumpy and reluctant ally. The semi-anthropomorphic cats drift at times between being amusing and strange.
The chosen director, Morita Hiroyuki, was part of the studio’s experiments to pave the way for future directors after Miyazaki retires. I felt there were a few moments during chase sequences where the timing and tension felt a bit off, but other than that, I can’t think of any glaring problems. Where I must give extra credit, though, is to the composer, Nomi Yuji. I simply cannot understand why he has such little high-profile work on his resume, because I find both of his scores for feature-length Ghibli films (Whisper and Cat) to be marvelous. Like in Whisper, we get a lovely, organic, mostly symphonic score with wonderful orchestrations and melodies (I particularly enjoy his dominant use of woodwinds). It is really a shame that there aren’t more scores of his that I can enjoy.
So what Cat Returns delivers, in the end, is a fairly short, imaginative story with excellent production, solid direction, and an endearing cast of characters. It isn’t the kind of film that lingers in your mind for days, and there are plenty of other Ghibli titles that are superior, but evaluated on its own merits, it’s still a fine way to spend an hour. 1/2
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