In 1995, Studio Ghibli released Whisper of the Heart, based on a manga, about a girl writing a fantasy novel. The movie was popular enough that seven years later an indirect sequel based on one of the films minor characters, Baron, was released. That film is The Cat Returns. In it, a high school girl named Naru discovers she has the ability to speak to cats after saving one from getting hit by a truck. The cat just so happens to be prince of the Cat Kingdom, who then has his people thank her by offering a plethora of gifts, including asking her for her hand in marriage. Terrified of the proposition, she hears a voice that tells her to seek out Baron, the only one who can save her. They meet up, but she is nevertheless captured and brought to the Cat Kingdom, leaving it up to Baron and his friends to save her.
The Cat Returns has a very different feel to it from most other Ghibli films. A big part of that is due to the director, Hiroyuki Morita, who had previously worked as an animator on such films as Akira and Lupin III. Some of the characters here have more of a distinctly anime vibe to them, especially the cat king, who has this crazed look in his eyes that is more at home in other anime genres than in Ghibli’s more thoughtful fantastic designs. The sense of humor on display here is also more slapstick than other Ghibli efforts, at times it feels like a Saturday morning cartoon. Which, depending on what you are looking for from a Ghibli film, is either a good or bad thing, but it definitely stands out in their cannon.
The Cat Returns has a lot of interesting ideas, though many of them aren’t fully realized. For example, one of the main characters, Muta (voiced appropriately in English by the late Peter Boyle), plays a much larger role in the history of the Cat Kingdom than we first realize. However none of this is even mentioned until the very end of the film. One would think that the arrival of character with such importance to the history of the kingdom (or at least one who looks very similar) would have been noticed and developed much earlier. A little more character and story development would have done wonders for the narrative. As it clocks in at a very lean 75 minutes, there is more than enough room to beef up some aspects of the story.
There are some imaginative sequences in The Cat Returns (the chase sequence after Naru is captured comes to mind), but overall the film left me wanting more. Naru is one of the weaker Ghibli adolescent protagonists (she has an unhealthy obsession with cool), though she is held up by some memorable companions. The Cat Kingdom is a great idea, and Naru’s learning to mature under these circumstances is good, though the execution was just a bit lacking. As it is, I wish there was more meat on this cat’s bones.