***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Reiko Yoshida
directed by Hiroyuki Morita
by Walter Chaw With the frantic, infernal energy (and cats) and even a little of the barbed social satire of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Hayao Miyazaki protégé Hiroyuki Morita's directorial debut The Cat Returns is undone a little by its hysteria but salvaged by its artistry and smarts. A familiar tale for fans of Studio Ghibli, the film follows plucky schoolgirl Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki in the Japanese track, Anne Hathaway in the English dub) as she saves a mysterious grey cat from certain flattening, thus earning her the dubious boon of eternal gratitude from the Cat King (Tetsuro Tamba & Tim Curry). After being cursed with a yard-full of cattails, a pocketful of catnip, and a locker-full of gift-wrapped mice, Haru receives the ultimate prize of betrothal to the Cat Prince (Takayuki Yamada & Andrew Bevis)--a fate she seeks to avoid with the help of portly kitty Muta (Tetsu Watanabe & Peter Boyle) and the stately Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada & Cary Elwes). Haru's journey is essentially one of perspective as she evolves from a silly sort of girl into a person who's learned to trust that her instincts are good and that her courage is, indeed, up to snuff.
Surreal at its best and screechy at its climactic (and almost pointless) worst, The Cat Returns is also laced with the live undercurrent of menace of the best of Miyazaki's work, if conspicuously light on the social subtext and sociological underpinnings that moor the Master's anime in more adult conversations. (In its Michael Whelan-esque watercolour invention, The Cat Kingdom, with its spires and costume balls, is particularly stunning.) As it stands, the picture is a sterling refutation of the idea that scatology and idiocy are a pre-requisite in children's entertainment--a reminder that the films we make for kids should be superior in a lot of ways to the garbage we churn out for adults. As such, it has an air of The Brothers Grimm in its willingness to put its protagonist in real peril against a villain, the Cat King, who is somehow worse than an embodiment of wickedness for his belief that he's doing genuine good. The heart of it remains with Miyazaki, however: a spin-off from an early Miyazaki script (Whispers of the Heart), The Cat Returns' central moral involves one of his prototypical little girls finding strength in her own identity and independence. A wise bit of advice on child-rearing writ vibrant and large: when your kid can walk, let him.
Disney presents The Cat Returns on DVD in a 2-disc set as part of its sterling second wave of Studio Ghibli titles. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer renders the film's slate of greens, especially, with a verdant fidelity, while I could detect neither grain nor edge-enhancement after much scrutiny. Of the three identically-mixed 5.1 Dolby Digital listening options, the original Japanese-language track is the preferred choice, as it is wont to be: Not only are the Japanese voice actors for the most part professionals (the English dub features Peter Boyle and Elliott Gould in their voice-acting debuts; they're professionals but not professional voice actors, if you know what I mean), but there's also a good deal of retro-dubbing in foreign language productions that necessitates a "working backwards" from the mouth movements, sometimes requiring--how do we say this--"creative" word substitutions. (I liked Hathaway's work in the English version (and Tim Curry's, too), but the rest is uneven.) Bass is surprisingly thunderous at times, and, as always, the French dub makes the film seem substantively different for good or for ill.
The first platter houses the bulk of the special features. "Behind the Microphone" (9 mins.) is a typical featurette interspersing clips with a few talking-head bits from the English cast. Standard revelation, this from Hathaway, "I had to scream a lot!" Uh huh. "The Secret Story of The Cat Returns" (32 mins.) is a special that initially aired on Japanese television with new English voice-over narration and a Yankee dub for master Miyazaki, musing here about how he had begun to fear that there would be no future for his Studio Ghibli once he and his partners, all aged, had passed on. (Hence the rationale for handing the reins of The Cat Returns over to young Morita, a production assistant on the classics Perfect Blue and Miyazaki's own Kiki's Delivery Service.) Also herein, scattered glimpses into the behind-the-scenes production at the animation house that make the heart skip a beat, even though the doc is standard TV making-of fare.
Inserting the disc cues trailers for Bambi: Special Edition, the trio of freshly-released Studio Ghiblis (Porco Rosso, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and The Cat Returns), and The Incredibles--you can also access these trailers through a "Sneak Peaks" option off the main menu. The unaltered Japanese trailers and TV spots for The Cat Returns (six all told) represent a final--and charming--batch of extras, and somehow, I didn't mind that no English subtitles accompanied them. A curiosity, the second disc of The Cat Returns contains just the complete audio tracks available for the picture playing under a storyboard animatic. Originally published: March 24. 2005.