Castles in the Sky: The Cat Returns, by Aaron Pinkston
In terms of quality, The Cat Returns is Studio Ghibli’s Cars 2. Not altogether a bad film, but when stacked up with the artistic and thematic merits of the production company’s other work, it doesn’t quite hold. Instead, both of these films went for a more pure entertainment approach, replacing heart with thrills and broad laughs.
Coincidentally, The Cat Returns is also a sequel — well, sort of. Though a completely original storyline, the film sees a few characters return (hence the title) from Whisper of the Heart. The film involves the misadventures of a shy, slightly out-of-place high school student named Haru. One day while walking with a friend, she sees a strange cat enter a busy street and saves it from being splattered. To her surprise, the cat then stands on its back two feet and in a clear voice thanks her for her harrowing deed. That night, a group of up-standing felines and their cat king visit her, promising to shower her in all sorts of cat gifts and invite her to their kingdom. As she feels like she doesn’t belong with her peers, she’s intrigued by the offer, though it ends up being much more than she bargained for.
Before being whisked away to the cat kingdom, she comes across the hero of this tale, an old Ghibli friend, The Baron. Here, though, he isn’t the statue from Whisper of the Heart, but the dashing, dignified kitty we met in Shizuku’s story. Voiced wonderfully in the English dubbing by Cary Elwes, the character is fun and memorable enough to take his place among many other Ghibli creations. Another nice surprise is the re-emergence of Muta, the charmingly fat cat. Here, though, in the fantasy cat world, Muta becomes a loud-mouthed, disgruntled butt of countless fat jokes. It took a fun and incredibly simple character and blew him up to be completely unlikeable — along with a pretty over-the-top voice performance from Peter Boyle. The film obviously wanted the viewer to have a connection with Muta of old, but it feels like a cheap shot. It’s almost as bad as when the Bond films made Jaws fall in love. But I digress…
Part of the reason The Cat Returns doesn’t quite have the same spirit as its counterparts may be the status of our main character, Haru. Like other Ghibli heroines, she is a young, imaginative girl who is looking for something more than her stale and lonely life. But The Cat Returns doesn’t properly set up her real-world life, really just telling us she’s awkward and lonely and hoping we’ll buy it. There are a number of problems many high school girls like Haru face, but the film doesn’t really seem to be concerned with them, unlike the wonderful tales of burgeoning femininity Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart. At a very slim 75 minutes (the shortest Ghibli film thus far), there is plenty of time to flush out some of this story and introduce or expand on the studio’s major themes.
After watching the film I had an epiphany of sorts that The Cat Returns may be a story written by Shizuku about The Baron’s adventures. Part of me likes that idea, but I wish there had been taken with a little more care. The fantasy sequence where The Baron comes to life in Whisper of the Heart is absolutely beautifully painted, while The Cat Returns is pretty simple all-around. If this was intended to be the case, Ghibli may have set a self-fulfilling prophecy — as is stated near the end of Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku indeed needs a bit more polishing.