I really didn’t know what to expect when I watched The Cat Returns; all I knew about it was that it was a fantasy-focused spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, which already seemed weird due to how grounded Whisper of the Heart, mostly, is. Also I knew that the film was the sole Ghibli film directed by Hiroyuki Morita, and with such a short run-time of an hour and fifteen minutes, I was eager to see if I had slept on this as much as I had its predecessor. But unfortunately I ended up finding The Cat Returns to be a limp and unworthy sequel that feels rough and unrefined.
The film follows high-schooler Haru Yoshioka, a teenager who retains the clumsiness of her childhood; she oversleeps, she’s shy and generally doesn’t have her life together. She also, in typical anime fashion, has the suppressed ability to talk to cats. And so after saving a cat from being run over, the cat reveals itself to be Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom, which leads to the Cat King asking Haru to marry the Prince, which Haru’s flustered answer is taken as a yes. This leads to Haru being introduced to the Baron, who is the only character who returns from Whisper of the Heart. Who agrees to accompany Haru after she and Muta, a large white cat, are forcibly taken to the Cat World. The rest of the film follows the group’s adventure in the Cat Kingdom, from the lavish banquets and parties, and ultimately their escape from the King’s grasp. It’s a simple story, but doesn’t try to be anything deeper, and it does succeed in being a fun kid-friendly fantasy-adventure, but for me it doesn’t carry the same charm and personality as Miyazaki’s early films like My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, which manage to not only create these kid-friendly fantasy worlds that also carry strong underpinning messages.
In terms of the animation, I really disliked most of The Cat Returns. I appreciate that Morita and his team were trying to go for a more realistic style for the humans and their world, but it just feels cheap and unpolished. There are other films that use a similar scratchy style in their character designs, the first example that jumps to mind would be Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game, but even in that, the style feels much more integrated with the overall tone and style of the film, whereas in The Cat Returns the animation is jarring and looks out of place against the, admittedly, beautiful background art. Once the film moves into the Cat Kingdom, the animation looks a lot better, and especially the movement of the fur on the Cat King himself was done really well, but Haru almost always looks out of place due to her animation, and the same goes for when you see cats standing up (again more so in the Human World but it does happen in the Cat Kingdom too). While there isn’t a ton of room when almost half of the characters are anthropomorphic animals to really show off different character designs, but still the limited range of designs really hurts the film. There are certain stand-out examples however, the Baron, of course, looks fantastic, and as I mentioned before the Cat King’s design is really fun and interesting that looks dynamic as the character moves around. Other good examples that aren’t quite on the same level are things like the cat soldiers, and the different party-goers in the Cat World.
While I admire the ambition of The Cat Returns, and the move to move away from the realism of Whisper of the Heart into full-fledged fantasy, the film fails to live up to the rest of the Ghibli canon. Looking at Morita’s filmography, it’s a shame to see he hasn’t directed another feature since The Cat Returns as I do think there is plenty of potential, but looking at the rest of his work as an animator and storyboarder you can see how talented he is, having worked on some of the biggest anime in the medium with credits for shows like Black Butler, Attack on Titan and Monster. But in The Cat Returns, the animation and character designs are weak, the soundtrack is nothing special and the narrative just feels bare bones. In fact I’d argue that A Whisker Away (which came out this year and you can read my review of it here), does the same narrative plot points but better. It’s still got plenty of charm, and with such a short run-time I’m not saying you need to avoid it if you’re watching the Ghibli films, but I feel it’s an unfortunate position because it’s clear Morita isn’t on the same level as Miyazaki or Takahata, or even Kondō, when it comes to directing ability, so compared against contemporary Ghibli films, the weakness of The Cat Returns is abundantly clear.