Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the DVD portion of The Cat Returns.
There's something about seeing the Studio Ghibli movies from time to time that calls to mind getting a visit from a cheery, faraway friend. Even the ones with darker themes radiate with a certain texture and color (and those painterly, cloudy skies!) that makes them irresistible. Along with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, this escapist fairy tale of a Japanese schoolgirl who gets inducted into a mystical, secret cat kingdom is the latest of the Disney-distributed Ghiblis to make it to Blu Ray in the U.S. Like a piece of exquisitely prepared mochi, it's a sweet, candy-colored treat.
While The Cat Returns may not be one of the better-known efforts from Ghibli stable, it definitely fits in with the studio's house style. In his sole Ghibli credit as director, Reiko Yoshida guided this surprisingly non-snarky, tradition-steeped tale with a sense of benevolence, vibrancy, and a dash of Japanese mysticism. It's a great movie for kids, yet adults will also appreciate the lush imagery and sheer weirdness of it. Win-win!
Following the familiar Ghibli story template of the innocent girl stumbling into a strange, secret world, The Cat Returns centers upon Haru, an endearingly scatterbrained, kinda klutzy high school student living in the city with her mother. While strolling back from school with her friend one day, she notices a grey cat holding a package in its teeth, attempting to cross a busy street. After she saves the cat from certain death, she discovers that the unique feline with two differently-colored eyes (who can stand on its hind legs) is actually Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. In gratitude for saving their sovereign's life, Haru becomes well-known to the local cat population and the recipient of many embarrassing gifts. She's also mistakenly believed by Lune as being his bride-to-be, an error that she attempts to correct by gaining entry into the Cat Kingdom via Muta, a burly, fuzzy white cat. She eventually tries to reach the prince in his palace with the help of Muta and the Baron, an elegantly attired cat who previously appeared in Ghibli's 1998 film Whisper of the Heart. Haru's supernatural ability to talk to cats and empathize with their feelings helps her on this journey of self-discovery.
Like its leggy heroine, The Cat Returns comes off a little bit gawky with its mixture of contemporary, anime-style comedy and straightforward, visually lavish fairy tale imagery. Its breezy, uncomplicated story winds up sweet, cute, and funny, however. As soon as the character of Haru gains access to the Cat Kingdom, the movie becomes pure Ghibli in putting the girl in as many awkward spots as possible. First, she's attempting to navigate tea time in the Baron's cramped yet impeccably decorated, cat-sized home. Next, she's being prepared for the nuptials at the palace of the formidable King of the Cats, not realizing that her own passivity means slowly getting transformed into a cat with pointy ears and whiskers. Although the finale fails to match the grandiosity of Ghibli films like Howl's Moving Castle, it still entertains with a frantic chase, the reveal of the Prince's true love, and Haru's realization that she just needed a confidence boost to make it through her crazy life.
Like the other Ghibli releases picked up for American release by Disney, The Cat Returns sports a well-produced English-language dub. Anne Hathaway as Haru does a nice job, although she missing the spontaneity and "cute" inflections of Japanese actress Chizuru Ikewaki. The best thing the American casting directors did was to re-think the role of the King's obedient toady, Natori. Given a woman's voice on the Japanese track, it's voiced in English with a lot more weaselly flair by Andy Richter.
The Blu Ray:
Like their other Studio Ghibli high-def releases, Disney's edition of The Cat Returns comes as a Blu Ray/DVD combo pack in a single, standard sized Blu case. The DVD portion replicates the menu designs, picture, sound and bonus features of Disney's 2005 release.
Like the other Disney releases of Ghibli films, The Cat Returns looks appealing in 1080p widescreen at proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The vivid colors are well-calibrated, saturated without looking overly fussed-with, while the darker scenes have a pleasant depth that conveys atmosphere without getting murky. The only problem comes from the fine, black edges in the animation appearing pixelated in the digital transfer. While other Ghibli Blu Ray releases fixed this problem (The Wind Rises looked comparatively great), on this disc it's noticeable - and even distracting.
The default audio option is the English-language 5.1 DTS-HDMA dub, an enjoyable, spacious mix that integrates the dialogue, scoring and sound effects with pristine quality and a nice bottom end. The other sound options are the original Japanese 5.1 DTS-HDMA (also excellent), and a French 5.1 dub. Subtitle tracks include an English translation of the original Japanese track, English SDH and French.
The feature-length Original Japanese Storyboards allows one to listen to the movie with the corresponding storyboard artwork. Disney's Behind the Microphone (8:59; 1080p) details the recording process for the English-language soundtrack, interviewing cast members Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, Andy Richter and Tim Curry. Made for Japanese television, The Making of The Cat Returns (34:11; standard-def, in Japanese with English subtitles) details the origin of the story in Ghibli's 1995 feature Whisper of the Heart, and the film's production. It includes writer Reiko Yoshida, producer Toshio Suzuki, director Hioyuki Morita and several of the voice actors. The Original Japanese Trailers (6:36; 1080p) and Original Japanese TV Spots (3:33; standard-def) are pretty fascinating, revealing that The Cat Returns was originally shown in theaters with a intriguing multi-part animated series called The Ghiblies (darn you, Disney, for not including this!). A selection of Sneak Peeks promotions round out the extras.
Endearingly cute, full of broad physical comedy and wondrous set pieces, Studio Ghibli's The Cat Returns doesn't have any grand ambitions other than relating a simple, uplifiting modern-day fairy tale. Ideal viewing for kids, adults, and anyone who has pondered what their cat is up to when they aren't around. Recommended.