FIB Retro Film Review: The Cat Returns

I’m on a bit of a Studio Ghibli kick at the moment, and since watching this movie I’ve watched the older effort Whisper of the Heart, a gorgeous teenage love story.

Credit: IFC Center

Someone at the storied animation house (maybe Miyazaki himself) apparently fell in love with the elements of the enigmatic foot-high statue of The Baron, a bipedal domestic house cat with a top hat, cane and fine suit and the overweight, lazy and standoffish cat Muta, who roams the neighbourhood where Shizuku finds the antique store.

It’s a bit mysterious though as a writer named Aoi Hiiragi is credited with creating a comic called Neko no Danshaku, Baron and someone named Reiko Yoshida is credited with The Cat Returns‘ screenplay, so Miyazaki obviously used the characters from Hiiragi’s comic as the basis for Whisper of the Heart and then repurposed them for The Cat Returns (although both movies credit Hiiragi’s comic, so who knows how it all came about).

The point is that someone imagined a rich inner fantasy life where The Baron and his kind cavort around a kingdom in some strange and magical other dimension where cats stand upright, form alliances and fight wars and where 17 year old Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki, Anne Hathaway in the English dub) finds herself.

The ever present magical element is that Haru has a long secret ability to talk to felines, and when she saves a cat from being run over on a busy street near her house, she’s contacted by representatives of the cat kingdom because it turns out she saved a crown prince.

After a grand parade along her street where she’s given gifts by the slovenly cat monarch, she’s told she’s now betrothed to the prince in marriage. Not sure how to get out of the weird arrangement in the cat world, Haru is told to seek out Muta, who shows her to the cat bureau, a specialised official office where Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Cary Elwes) offers to save her from the clutches of the oppressive cat king.

From there it’s a flight (at times literally) of fancy between worlds as the Baron, Muta and Toto, a large raven, join forces to find and rescue Haru and help her back to her own world while deposing the despotic regime in their own.

The plot itself is a fairly standard otherworldly rescue mission and at this point it’s a given that the 2D animation is both stunningly detailed and refreshingly light and crisp, but what a really struck me was the way director Hiroyuki Morita understands the ways cats really move and behave despite the anthropomorphism, and how he and his animators have translated that into line drawings (or computer graphics that look indivisible from them).

It’s not among the studio’s most memorable outings, but even their lesser films alone have more charm than the output of most other moviemaking houses’ entire output.

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