May 20, 2011

[Movies] The Cat Returns / Neko no Ongaeshi (2002)

The Cat Returns / Neko no Ongaeshi (2002)When you think of Studio Ghibli, you automatically associate their movies with Hayao Miyazaki. To his credit, he did establish the studio and he created many of their most popular films. But in the same that Pixar has started to grow to allow new blood to try their hand at directing films, so too has Studio Ghibli.

This is one of those movies, which ironically is sort of a loose sequel to another non-Miyazaki Ghibli movie. While it certainly has a very different flavor compared to the core Miyazaki Ghibli movies, it's still quite a delightful and entertaining experience. When you think about it - there has yet to be a Studio Ghibli movie that I've had the chance to see that I didn't like or enjoy. And that's pretty impressive - I could more or less say the same thing about Pixar except for the fact that I didn't particularly enjoy Cars after all. But with Ghibli, I've enjoyed every single release. But hey, there are still quite a number of them that I still need to get around to watching them.

And admittedly I do like cats, so that probably helped me appreciate this movie. Although certain characters were a tad more annoying than others, on the whole it was pretty fun. But darn those cats.

Cover of "Whisper of the Heart"Cover of Whisper of the HeartThe Cat Returns or Neko no Ongaeshi is a 2002 Studio Ghibli film directed by Hiroyuki Morita. The movie features the character of the Baron, who was last seen in the Ghibli movie Whisper of the Heart / Mimi wo Sumaseba that was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō. The movie received the Excellence Prize at the 2002 Japan Media Arts Festival.

The movie focused on a girl named Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki / Anne Hathaway), who is your typical shy high school student. As a child she was convinced that she could talk to cats - something which turns out to be true many years later. A chance encounter with a particular dark colored tabby with eyes of different colors results in her saving the cats life. But the cat surprisingly gets up on its hind legs and reveals himself to be Lune (Takayuki Yamada / Andrew Bevis), Prince of the Kingdom of Cats.

Out of gratitude, the Kingdom of Cats starts to do a bunch of different favors for Haru, much to her annoyance. But another encounter with Natoru (Mari Hamada / Andy Richter), the messenger of the King (Tetsurō Tanba / Tim Curry) reveals that it has been decided that Haru is to marry the Prince as their ultimate way of saying thank you for her efforts. But naturally Haru doesn't want to become the bride of a cat and a mysterious voice eventually sends her to seek help from the Cat Bureau.

The Cat Bureau actually involves three different individuals. The first is an overly large white cat known as Muta (Tetsu Watanabe / Peter Boyle), Toto (Yōsuke Saitō / Elliott Gould), who is the statue of a raven that has come to life. And finally there is the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada / Cary Elwes), who is actually a cat figurine that has also come to life. While the Bureau tries to figure out how best to help Haru, Natoru and the other cats find Haru and quickly steal her away and take her to their kingdom. Now it's up to Haru to think of a way to remain herself while the Baron tries to rescue her.

The movie features a very clean and crisp animation style that is a tad different compared to past Ghibli movies. Still, it has that character and charm that the other movies had as well, which is always a good thing. There's no going away from Ghibli's signature attention to detail as evidenced by how rich every sequence and environment presents itself to be.

What was most striking to me throughout the movie was how amazingly they managed to capture the unique behaviors of cats. Sure, there was a lot of anthropomorphism going on here and there, but there was definitely a cat-like quality to everything. Thus you had a lot of human-like behaviors matched with very feline traits as well in one seamless marriage. That's no easy feat under any circumstance and my kudos to the animators for a stellar job.

On the whole, the core story of this film was pretty simple. It was all about Haru and her efforts to escape the Kingdom of Cats in an Alice in Wonderland type of adventure. And maybe that just evidences how this movie was originally a short film project done for a theme park that was cancelled in the end. But the organic growth of the story and the overall attempt to provide a venue to feature more of the Baron and even Muta was quite successful, if I do say so myself. They're quite endearing characters and they certainly had quite an adventure here.

Of course the skill in bringing all these diverse characters to life is beyond belief. Ironically this is best evidenced by the character of Natoru. I mean seriously, she is just the most annoying little character I've ever seen - which is impressive given the kind of emotional response she's triggered in me. They were able to masterfully create a full-blooded and realistic annoying little twerp that I couldn't help but admire how they did it. But I still want to throttle that darned cat and her smug little grin!

The Cat Returns is a darling little movie and a great addition to any Studio Ghibli library. It's not quite as philosophically heavy as prior movies, but it's still a great showcase of their talent. It gets 3.5 ways that Muta takes advantage of his weight in combat out of a possible 5.

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