The movie is something of a sequel to Yoshifumi Kondo's enchanting Whisper of the Heart, but, in fact, it has few similarities to that work. Neither Tsukishima Shizuku, the earlier film's protagonist, nor any of its other human characters appear in The Cat Returns. The only links connecting the two movies are the Baron and the large fat cat called Moon in the first film and Muta in the second. Both of these two, however, have been significantly reimagined in The Cat Returns. The Baron is merely a statue in Kondo's movie but appears as a character in Morita's. The only times he is presented in Whisper of the Heart as being more than an inanimate object are a few brief scenes depicting Shizuku's imaginings. In Morita's film, however, not only is Muta able to talk, but the Baron has been brought to life. Instead of merely being an ordinary cat and a lifeless statue, the two have been transformed into magical entities. Even the ordinary universe they inhabited in the first movie has been replaced by a vision of otherworldly realms, strange creatures, and daring adventures.
The persons living in this magical world, unfortunately, have not been infused with the wonderful personalities that so enliven Kondo's film. Most of the characters in The Cat Returns are entirely unmemorable. Haru is likeable and is, in truth, more appealing than are the majority of characters that can be found in film, but she is never as engaging as are Shizuku or countless other individuals who populate so many of the works made at Studio Ghibli. Most of the movie's characters are far more like the forgettable caricatures found in most Western animated films than the beautifully crafted persons inhabiting the works of such directors as Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
Even visually, the film is not particularly memorable. It is, perhaps, the least distinguished of any of the Studio Ghibli movie I have seen. While never poorly done, the quality of the animation is, nevertheless, extremely uneven. There are times when it is surprisingly beautiful, and there are also times when it is no better than that of a very ordinary children's cartoon. Haru, at least, is, for much of the movie, nicely realized. She has been given all the awkwardness and vivacity of many teenaged girls and is, consequently, a real joy to watch. Sadly, later in the movie, when she has been partially transformed into a cat, she looks as though she has been lifted from a low budget Saturday morning cartoon and loses almost all the appeal she previously had.
Although it is filled with adventure and has a number of magical moments, The Cat Returns is more like an American animated movie than anything else that has been made at Studio Ghibli. More often than not, the film plays out like a simple and forgettable story for children. Sadly, even its appeal as such is diminished by the director's inclusion of a fair number of adorable details and incidents which, instead of being genuinely touching, are annoyingly saccharine.
Perhaps, I will admit, I am being too harsh on The Cat Returns. It may not be an important work of art, but it is genuinely fun to watch. Haru, on the whole, is an engaging, likeable person, and the director has given her adventures a sense of both excitement and of awe. The movie is certainly no worse and is, perhaps, a little better than the great majority of films which deal with fantastic themes. It may not be noteworthy, but it is pleasantly entertaining.
If the viewer does not come to The Cat Returns with the same expectations he would have of a film directed by Miyazaki himself and, instead, approaches it simply as a light hearted diversion, he will, most likely, be able to enjoy the experience of watching it.
Review by Keith Allen
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