Review of The Cat Returns, directed by Hiroyuki Morita
–Guest Blog by Rebecca Holland
The Cat Returns (2002) is a Japanese animated fantasy feature movie by Studio Ghibli. It was originally envisioned as a twenty minute short to advertise a theme park. They selected the cat characters of Baron and Muta from one of their previous movies, Whisper of the Heart (1995), to star in the animation. Sadly, the theme park never materialized, but the story idea was so compelling that the studio decided to develop it into a feature length animation. The writer of the manga that inspired Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiiragi, was also commissioned to write a story based on the original short. The Cat Returns is essentially an extension of Hiiragi’s fictional world, but it is not a sequel by any means. Think of it more as a movie that takes inspiration from the characters of the Whisper of the Heart–with fun Easter eggs, for those who have seen it, and a delightful introduction to these charming cat characters, for those who haven’t.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, I re-watched The Cat Returns to see if the magic was still there, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was. The movie follows Haru Yoshioka, a shy student who often arrives late to school and has a crush on a boy who doesn’t even know she exists. One day, she saves a cat from traffic, only to discover that she has suppressed the ability to talk to cats when the cat thanks her for saving him. He then gives her typical cat gifts– like a hundred mice–and she is whisked away to the kingdom of cats as a reward.
Directed by Hiroyuki Morita–who also did in-between animations for Kiki’s Delivery Service (another movie with an adorable talking cat)–the animation style is a 2D, anime-style. Simpler than many other Studio Ghibli movies, it has a lighter feel that matches its whimsical storyline. The Cat Returns is a quirky, eccentric tale with almost comedic undertones and stunning animated backgrounds that give the feel of being a fairytale. At 75 minutes, it’s also reasonably short, but it does a remarkable job of being a complete story and having a satisfying resolution at the end. There’s a Japanese version of the movie with English subtitles, or a delightful version in English, available now on Netflix in some regions, where Cary Elwes puts in a dashing performance as the suave Baron Humbert von Gikkingen.
As a cat lover, this movie delighted me because of the sheer number of felines. There are your regular neighborhood cats, a king and prince in a faraway kingdom of cats that can only be reached by a magical portal (and unlike the neighborhood cats, these felines talk!), plus a friendly black raven, Baron, the cat figurine come to life, and a large grumpy white cat. The film even starts with a young Haru feeding a stray kitten she comes across, which filled my heart with joy. What more can I say than The Cat Returns really is the epitome of the dream movie for cat lovers? And, to make it even better, it’s suitable for all ages. The movie is rated U for Universal, with a content warning for mild threats. It’s the kind of peril you would expect in family movies – think tall towers, turning into a cat and being catnapped. There’s no real injury to Haru or our furry friends (not even the naughty kitties) aside from the odd scrape and bump.
This is a movie that is ridiculously charming from start to finish, with feel-good, joyous undertones. I found it super easy to watch thanks to its short runtime and non–stop action. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s the kind of ending that you will appreciate after the wild adventure that the movie takes you on. I would recommend watching this one alone when you need a pick-me-up, or with your favourite cat–loving family, friends or young ones, when you want a movie to enjoy together after a hard week.
Genre: Japanese animated feature movie
Who should watch this movie: Anyone who loves cats, and wishes they could escape into a fantastical world with an entire kingdom of talking cats
Who should not watch this movie: Anyone who dislikes cats, there are many cats!
The takeaway: As a cat lover, it was the purrfect fantasy adventure for me.