Fifth-grader Toriyasu (voiced by Hiroaki Hori) and his little sister Miko (Mirai Sasaki) are worried that their beloved dog Papadoll (Fumihiko Tachiki) has been missing for a week. One night a trio of talking, costumed cats spirit the youngsters away to the magical cat kingdom of Banipal Witt, whose mystical sun turns the kids into cats but has also turned Papadoll into a goggle-eyed, gargantuan cross between Godzilla and a killer plush toy - with an oddly unsettling wheezy laugh! Now terrorizing the city under the command of evil Princess Buburina (Noriko Hidaka), whose cursed touch turns people into balloons that have a nasty habit of going pop, Papadoll’s only hope rests with Toriyasu and Miko. They must retrieve a magic cat’s paw glove before prolonged exposure to the sun turns them into monsters too.
Catnapped! was produced by Pioneer the anime outfit behind cult sci-fi serials Armitage III (1994) and Tenchi Muyo (1992) as an attempt to break into the children’s market. Dismissed by some as a Studio Ghibli knockoff, the film actually has its own distinctively twisted flavour, a candy-coloured cartoon nightmare for tiny tots to gasp, giggle and hide behind the sofa, and ironically foreshadows the rival studio’s own foray into feline fantasy: Hiroyuki Morita’s underrated The Cat Returns (2002).
It is an early work by Takashi Nakamura, the writer/director/character designer behind the ambitious A Tree of Palme (2005), whose idiosyncratic touch is evident in the charming cut-out and plasticine credits, the recurrent balloon-puppet and fairground imagery, and an array of audacious visuals. Banipal Witt itself is a riot of kaleidoscopic colours and visual invention, resting on the back of a planet-sized sleeping cat it is an eye-popping fairground of Ferris wheels and cat-shaped rollercoasters where inhabitants fly steampunk spaceships and the inflatable victims of Buburina’s wrath float about luxurious palaces.
However, Nakamura is rather better at breakneck chases and offbeat imagery than spinning a coherent plot or affecting undertones. An overcrowded back-story interweaves a foolish apprentice sorcerer who stole the magic glove to win Buburina’s heart; allusions to a forbidden romance between a cat and a mouse (!); and a flashback that reveals the petty princess was cursed by yet another sorcerer in revenge for causing his daughter’s death. None of these elements really cohere as, after an admittedly pulse-pounding climax, the movie ends with the suggestion of a sequel that never came to be. Grouchy Toriyasu is a poor choice for a hero, bickering his way through an interspecies romance with cute cat-girl Chuchu (Mayumi Izuka), but gutsy little Miko proves a real scene-stealer. Watching Miko boss her way aboard the cat spaceship, trick her drowsy brother into believing he’s late for school, or stand up to the all-powerful Princess Buburina with nothing but determination on her side is a treat, although one longs for a hint of Ghibli’s psychological undertones. Still, Catnapped! is never less than enjoyable and has the taste of carefree adventure that crackles like exploding candy.