The Cat Returns is a swashbuckling adventure that finds our main character Harou on a quest to discover her own self-confidence. While not as visually stunning as other Studio Ghibli works, The Cat Returns is a fun, fast paced adventure that anyone can enjoy.
Released in 2002 and directed by Hiroyuki Morita, the film is a spin-off of the 1995 Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart. Like Whisper of the Heart before it, The Cat Returns is one of the few Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or the late Isao Takahata.
The Cat Returns follows Haru Yoshioka, a shy, clumsy girl who deals with a lot of self-doubt. One day as she is heading home, she kindly saves a cat from getting hit by a tuck. The cat she saves happens to be Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom who promises to reward Haru. The reward turns out to be much more than Haru bargained for; an arranged marriage to a prince! With the help of the titular Cat (also known as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, or just the Baron), she must find a way to escape this arranged marriage and make it back home!
The story reminds me of swashbuckling adventure films like Robin Hood or The Princess Bride, which makes the dub casting all to more perfect with the iconic Cary Elwes playing the suave and sophisticated Baron. The Baron is very much in the same vein as Dread Pirate Roberts or Robin Hood from Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
The Cat Returns is a very fast paced story. With the film gracefully bouncing from one entertaining set piece to another, it succeeds in keeping the audiences attention. The maze sequence is a major highlight as the Baron and Haru have to get to the end of the maze to reach the portal to get Haru back home. Not only do they have to fend off the Cat King’s guards mounted on top of the walls, they also have get past walls that move to misdirect them! It’s an exciting sequence with a great visual gag of all the fake walls coming down.
My favorite aspect of The Cat Returns is its message of believing in yourself and having the confidence to stand up for what you want or believe. Having self-doubt and overthinking situations is a common problem that everyone deals with at some point in their lives. At the beginning of the film, Haru lacks confidence in herself. At first, she thinks that if she can just date that cute boy from school, she would find that happiness she desires! But though her adventures in the Cat Kingdom, she learns to have more confidence in herself from within, not through someone else’s approval. She stands up to the Cat King, definitively telling him “No!” Haru gains confidence in herself finding she didn’t need another person to make her happy. She just needed to have the confidence and courage it takes to make her own decisions.
The visuals of The Cat Returns are possibly the weakest part of the film. Coming from a studio like Ghibli, I admit I had higher expectations. The Cat Returns doesn’t have the fine details or vibrant, painterly colors of Ponyo or Howl’s Moving Castle. That being said the film does have some clever sight gags. The Cat King’s bodyguards are black and white cats that when they stand up, they look like secret service agents. That’s a great blend of real world reference and the natural look of cats. The ending sequence of Haru and all the members of the Cat Bureau coming down to earth via a stairway of crows is quite entertaining and memorable. While not as visually stunning as other Ghibli movies The Cat Returns visual are charming and fun in their own right.
The Cat Returns is fun throwback to classic action-adventure tales that go at a breakneck pace. I highly recommend this film especially for its strong message about finding courage and having confidence in oneself, just don’t go into The Cat Returns comparing it visually to other Studio Ghibli work.
Additional Notes and Observations
- Tim Curry plays The Cat King in the english dub! That’s it’s own selling point right there!
- If crows can hold the weight of a human being, I want to know what else they can carry…
- It would have been interesting to see what else Hiroyuki Morita would have directed had he stayed working for Studio Ghibli. This was a great first outing!
- Keeping a king entertained is hard to do.
The Cat Returns is available along with The Wind Rises, The Secret World of Arrietty, Castle in the Sky, and others. Get it as part of a new 6-film bundle on Apple TV and save $20!