Klutzy schoolgirl Haru (voiced by Anne Hathaway in the English dub) saves a strange-looking cat from being hit by a truck on a busy road, but is startled to hear him osay thank youffer his thanks. The cat is Prince Lune (Andrew Bevis) of the Cat Kingdom and his father, the Cat King (Tim Curry), showers Haru with gifts of catnip and mice. Naturally, Haru has no use for those and the hordes of mewling felines stalking her every move wreak havoc with her daily life. She is then offered Prince Lune’s hand in marriage. Disheartened that the boy she likes is in love with another girl, Haru innocently muses whether she would be happy being married to cat, but is aghast when the king’s minions interpret this as a yes. A mysterious voice urges Haru to seek help from the so-called Cat Bureau. Following a fat white cat named Muta (Peter Boyle), Haru arrives in an enchanted corner of town where the dashing Baron (Cary Elwes), a living cat-shaped figurine with magical powers, pledges to save her from this predicament. When the Cat King’s minions kidnap the shrieking schoolgirl into their enchanted realm, Baron follows with his squabbling companions Muta and the raven Toto (Elliott Gould) for a rollicking race against time before Haru turns into a cat forever...
For some reason The Cat Returns is the one Studio Ghibli film critics routinely scorn. Possibly because compared to the multilayered, often socio-politically oriented allegories woven by studio co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this spins a cheerfully unpretentious yarn laced with a teen-targeted message of self-belief that strikes some as simplistic. But the message is wholly sincere and upholds Miyazaki’s own tradition of tales of self-empowerment aimed at adolescent young ladies. This was also the first self-referential Ghibli movie, drawing its plot from a novel written by the heroine of their earlier film Whisper of the Heart (1995). Audiences were so intrigued by short fantasy sequences featuring the enchanted cat figurine named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen that Miyazaki and regular producer Toshio Suzuki decided to craft a spin-off adventure, initially as a twenty-minute short screened in a Japanese theme park then eventually a feature film showcasing new Ghibli talent.
Although Takashi Nakamura got there first with his feline-themed fantasy Catnapped! (1995), The Cat Returns is the more elegant and superior work, a lively, inventive fairytale graced with a winningly well-observed, endearingly awkward and wholly believable teen heroine. It is so apt that Anne Hathaway is on vocal duties for the English dub, because Haru truly has that whole Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries thing going on: a charming goofiness and vulnerability masking innate grace. In his directorial debut Hiroyuki Morita - a veteran animator who served on everything from Akira (1988) to Tenchi Muyo (1992) - brings a fresh, contemporary perspective to the stock Ghibli heroine. Instead of an archetype, Haru is the first Ghibli heroine who feels like she comes from the real world. In some ways she seems like a precursor to the multifaceted modern schoolgirls who inhabit the anime of Mamoru Hosoda, who came within a hair’s breadth of directing for Ghibli before he was fired from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). As in Hosoda’s anime and Miyazaki’s own classic Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), the whole point of the ensuing adventure is to bolster Haru’s self-confidence so she can face more mundane challenges in the “real” world.
The kingdom of cats is beautifully detailed while Morita proves he can handle those Ghibli aerial action set-pieces as well as the master Miyazaki. Alongside Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes is pitch perfect as Baron, injecting some of the wry English heroism he brought to The Princess Bride (1987), while the remainder of the new voice cast prove something of a mixed bag. Peter Boyle and Elliott Gould are inspired choices and sound suitably crabby as Baron’s squabbling sidekicks, but the English dub strangely reworks one of the original film’s most amusing characters, the incredibly polite but hopelessly inept female cat servant Natoru into a whiny male sycophant voiced by Andy Richter. Also Tim Curry’s Cat King sounds more like an L.A. beach bum than imperious feline dictator. Cult film fans may be interested to learn the original Japanese version casts Tetsuro Tanba, the incredibly prolific actor best known as Tiger Tanaka in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967).