When high school student Haru saves a strange-looking cat from being run over by a truck she is understandably surprised when it turns out that it can talk. After voicing its thanks the cat promises to reward her for her kindness, at which point her life becomes very interesting indeed. It transpires that the cat she saved is none other than the son of the Cat King, who decides that she must travel to the Kingdom of Cats to marry the Prince. What follows is an enchanting adventure in which Haru must choose between a life with feline royalty and the uneventful existence she has left behind.
The Cat Returns is the debut feature from Hiroyuki Morita, a member of the new generation of film-making talent at the legendary Studio Ghibli. He was keen to make a film that was quite different from those created by the likes of Miyazaki and Takahata, and as a result this has an atmosphere and style all of its own. Although it is a standalone film, fans of the late Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart will be interested to know that it is something of a sequel, insofar as the appearance of the handsome and helpful Baron, plus a soundtrack from Yuuji Nomi and the story penned by Aoi Hiiragi.
The plot is a fairly traditional fairytale adventure that doesn’t really have many unexpected twists and turns, but any shortcomings in that department are more than made up for by the way in which the story is told. In typical Ghibli style the thmes of honesty and being true to oneself are presented with such innocence and conviction that even the most cynical viewer will be utterly spellbound. In addition a colourful cast and beautiful artwork combine with a sharp script for some real laugh-out-loud moments. As you might expect, the animation is of a very high standard with little (if any) need for CGI.
The heated exchanges between the cat Muta and crow Toto provide a lot of the humour but the Cat King nearly steals the show with his outrageous, over-the-top behaviour. Whether it’s literally casting out court entertainers who fail to amuse him at the banquet (similarities with Lewis Carroll are especially evident here) or making numerous ill-fated attempts at showing his gratitude to Haru, he is the polar opposite of the refined and charming Baron whose Cat Business Office tries to help her out of the forthcoming marriage. The Kingdom of the Cats is a magical and vibrant place that is full of subtle visual delights rather than vast, dramatic landscapes.
It is definitely the characters that really make the film special though. Haru is probably one of the most likeable and engaging heroines in any Ghibli film that I’ve seen so far: honest and helpful yet clumsy and a bit of a dreamer, she is very much an ordinary teenager and as a result very easy to relate to. The supporting cast, consisting of everyday humans, talking birds, cats of every conceivable shape and size and an enchanted feline figurine in a top hat all make for a cinematic experience that is brimming over with warmth and humour.
The Cat returns is a charming, funny and fast-paced piece of feel-good family entertainment that can melt the coldest of hearts. While the basic story is simple and straightforward it is carried off with such flair and attention to detail the viewer will find themselves hopelessly drawn into the enchanted Kingdom of Cats. Quite far removed from the epics of those of his mentors, Morita’s first feature film is a remarkably accomplished piece that is a sign of more great things to come.