More of a loose spin-off of 1995's Whisper of the Heart than anything close to a sequel, Hiroyuki Morita's The Cat Returns (2002) shares very little with its predecessor but is still a good time at the movies. Whereas the former was a grounded, human-driven drama with precise animation and realistic characters, The Cat Returns offers a surreal, much less serious, and purely comedic stab at an adventure obviously set in the same universe. If you get a kick out of cute widdle kitties dressed as humans and walking on their hind-paws, you won't have any trouble making the adjustment.
Our story follows Haru Yoshioka, a teenage girl who, like Whisper of the Heart's Shizuku, struggles with adolescence. One fateful day after school, she saves the life of a small cat on a busy street and is surprised to find that it stands up and speaks to her when no one else is around. The grateful kitty reveals himself to be Prince Lune, son of The Cat King, and promises a lavish assortment of gifts and his hand in marriage. Though unsure about the second part, Haru is intrigued by his invitation to his Cat Kingdom...but first, she is encouraged to seek out "The Baron" (the same cat figurine from Whisper of the Heart's antique shop), who follows her to the kingdom after she's literally carried there against her will. Before long, Haru is feasting with royalty and discovers that she's slowly transforming into a cat herself.
Spiritually connected to Whisper of the Heart for obvious reasons, The Cat Returns was also the first directorial effort by a long-time Ghlibi animator, is again based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and features another terrific score by Yuji Nomi. But it's different in almost every other way: the story is lean and lightweight (first proposed as a 20-minute short, later expanded to 45 minutes, and then by another half-hour), its premise is silly, and the characters aren't especially deep or layered. Haru, for example, isn't a particularly memorable character to begin with, and she's relegated to "rescue bait" in the second half. While The Cat Returns is obviously aimed at a younger crowd (perhaps the youngest since My Neighbor Totoro) and isn't the most essential film in Studio Ghibli's library, it remains an entertaining and enjoyable diversion that can be enjoyed by the whole family. The animation and structure aren't nearly as polished or precise as its more mature sibling, but few will walk away from The Cat Returns with anything but a smile on their face.
Either way, you needn't be completely (or even passively) familiar with Whisper of the Heart to enjoy The Cat Returns on its own terms: this is probably the closest that Studio Ghibli has come to producing mainstream American-style animation, but that also means it's a solid entry point for newcomers willing to overlook the cat-and-girl romance factor. GKIDS' new combo pack, like other titles in their recent deluge of Ghibli re-issues, is nearly identical to Disney's 2015 Blu-ray; it's not worth buying if you own that disc already, but a solid enough package that should attract newcomers.
Disney's 2015 Blu-ray featured a suitably strong and stable 1080p presentation sourced from a recent master, and not surprisingly GKIDS' new Blu-ray looks more or less identical to my eyes. Though I don't have the tools to do a side-by-side comparison (either on-screen or via captures), I spot checked a handful of scenes from both discs and found no major variances in detail, texture, black levels, compression, bit rate, and color balance. Quite simply, both looked fantastic and virtually flawless, aside from trace amounts of banding during a handful of tricky gradient scenes. Overall, this seems to be a clear case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", so fans will have no reason to be disappointed here.
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Like the Disney disc, viewers can choose between the original Japanese 5.1 track or an English 5.1 dub featuring the likes of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (returning as "The Baron"), Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Andy Richter, Tim Curry, and more; it was recorded back in 2005 and included on previous Region 1 releases of the film. I've always been partial to the original Japanese, so I mainly focused on that track during the show. It's a great mix with crisp dialogue, strong channel separation, and even a few effective uses of rear channel activity and LFE along the way. Naturally, the most enveloping moments are during music cues and crowded scenes in the city and kingdom, while Yuji Nomi's original score also enjoys a strong presence without overpowering the dialogue. The English track is fine as far as dubs go, and more attractive than usual considering the deep roster of well-known voices that seem perfectly suited for their characters.
Like the previous DVD and Blu-ray, optional subtitles are available as both dubtitles (for the English version, naturally) and a literal English translation of the Japanese track, which has been provided by Studio Ghibli according to the packaging and differs quite a bit during many scenes. An optional French dub and subtitles are also included.
GKIDS' static, silent menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover; a nice Booklet is also tucked inside, featuring short reprinted essays by producer Toshio Suzuki and Hayao Miyazaki.
Everything from Disney's 2015 Blu-ray; nothing more, nothing less. These recycled extras include Original Japanese Storyboards that play during the entire film, a 30-minute subtitled Behind-the-Scenes TV Special, a short Featurette about the English dub, and a generous assortment of Trailers & TV Spots for the main feature in English and Japanese.
A decidedly different adventure from the reliable Studio Ghibli, Hiroyuki Morita's The Cat Returns serves as an outlandish spin-off of 1995's Whisper of the Heart that doubles as the studio's shortest and least serious production to date. But it's still a light and enjoyable diversion that kids of all ages should enjoy, and even more accessible since you don't need to be familiar with Whisper of the Heart first. Those expecting much more than an offbeat "damsel in distress" picture, on the other hand, might be popping in the wrong disc. GKIDS' new combo pack, like other titles in their recent deluge of Ghibli re-issues, is nearly identical to Disney's recent Blu-ray aside from the menu interface and packaging. So it's not worth a purchase if you own the Disney disc already, but newcomers should consider this one Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.