Animal Anecdote: Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns (2002) – Blu-ray review
Judged as a Ghibli side-project, it would have real curiosity value; as an official Ghibli film, its lack of ambition ultimately overcomes its quiet charms.
The Cat Returns
(Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)
The thing about having a brand is that it automatically confers a certain cachet to everything released under its name. Accordingly, animation studios are usually fairly particular about what becomes part of their canon. So Disney quietly issue sequels straight to DVD so as not to make them part of its tradition of theatrical features, while Pixar cannily passed on Planes despite it being a blatant spin-off from Cars.
Yet Studio Ghibli has no such qualms, which is why The Cat Returns can sit purring happily alongside Spirited Away, Grave Of The Fireflies and the rest. This is the lightest, slightest of Ghibli films – but it was always going to be given its provenance. Made because everybody liked the Baron (the hero of the story-within-the-story of Whisper Of The Heart), it was originally going to be a 20-minute short commissioned for a theme park, then a 45 minute short, and finally a 75 minute feature – still Ghibli’s shortest running time by far.
And director Hiroyuki Morita treats the material in a much more casual manner than his boss Hayao Miyazaki would. Morita’s animation style is simpler and more utilitarian, less blessed with sequences whose visual splendour can take the breath away (although a set-piece involving a bus is reasonably dynamic), and with character designs that don’t quite resemble the house style, bar returning characters the Baron and Muta. (Only My Neighbours The Yamadas, deliberately made to resemble a newspaper strip graphic, looks less like Ghibli.)
The result has the feel of an anecdote or – befitting the Whisper of The Heart connection – a flight of fantasy dreamed up by a schoolgirl. The surreal logic of cats trying to repay a favour, only to fail to understand that humans don’t appreciate gifts of live mice to eat, is delightful… but then things get overly loopy as Haru is kidnapped with the intention of being married to a cat. Meanwhile, the Baron doesn’t really get much to do, aside from fending off a swordsman with a cane; he’s cool, but never quite focal enough to really be the cat who gets the cream.
Nor is there much in the way of thematic subtext, a rarity for this most intellectual of studios. The childlike feel is sometimes bracing, but this is perhaps best deployed as the Ghibli equivalent of a gateway drug. Show this to newcomers, and then blow their minds with the rest of the studio’s output.