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A young girl rescues a mysterious cat from traffic and soon finds herself the unwelcome recipient of gifts and favors from the King of the Cats, who also wants her to marry his son, Prince Lune. With the assistance of a fat, grouchy real cat and a an elegant cat statuette come to life (both characters featured in Studio Ghibli's earlier anime "Whisper of the Heart"), the girl visits the Cat Kingdom and narrowly escapes again. Written by
a fairly short feature-length film, but within its parameters perfectly wonderful and adorable
I wouldn't be sure that The Cat Returns would have an appeal to audiences as wide as Miyazaki's directed films would, since as a family film it is mostly amusing or curious for adults (with the good laugh or two at the American voice work if one is inclined to listen to the new English dub). But for children it's just about one of the best in the anime field, a work that provides that great dose of fantasy and enjoyment while sticking to those tried and true themes with kids movies that only work so often (such as here). While "believe in yourself" is in fact such a cliché that it may eventually turn back around and become an original notion at some point in movies, in the Cat Returns it has that fresh perspective of a little girl, a genuinely caring and generous soul who's doesn't have many friends, who contemplates from time to time becoming a cat.
In the Cat Returns, where young Haru saves a kitty from certain death while crossing a street and in the process is picked to become the wife to the Prince of the Cat Kingdom somewhere far, far away, there's even a slight Fantasy Island ala Pinocchio aspect to the piece (which goes without saying the obvious comparison with becoming a cat by thinking or acting like one). It's all in good fun, but would one really want to be in a kingdom of cats presided by a Cat King who loafs about in total splendor? Well, maybe, which is part of the conflict. But for kids this is just a core for the rest of the joy to spring out of. After the whole individuality-good aspect is covered, the rest of the picture has to entertain, and this is where Studio Ghibli works their usual best again.
It's a gorgeously animated film, directed by Hiroyuki Morita from a somewhat original concept, delivering a wide variety of cats- small, cute, tall, proper, fat, fuzzy, shrill, sweet- and a great design of the Cat Kingdom itself with that shifty maze and giant towers. Morita almost disappoints with the running length: at 75 minutes, a few of those for credits, the Cat Returns could actually benefit from having more detail and bits of comedy and excitement. But it's then a backhanded compliment at the same time; one has many memorable characters to pick from, like the big sidekick/bodyguard Muta, the King himself, Natoru the lackey for the king, and the Baron who is about as formal as a royal British officer.
For children most of all it's the kind of treat they'll want to revisit many times, and a good point as well is the new English dub. It wouldn't be bad if the Japanese cut got some attention, which is the original and fine enough, but the voice-work from Anne Hathaway, Peter Boyle, Cary Elwes, Tim Curry, Eliot Gould, and Andy Richter is fantastic for sometimes so small or repetitive a performance (as Hathaway points on the DVD, lots of screaming, varieties of yelling and yelps for Boyle) that it's never less than delightful. The little kid in me, as well as cat lover, was very pleased. The only minor drawback is that some adults may feel a little left out of the simplicity of the piece on the whole as it isn't as all inclusive a masterpiece like Totoro.
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