Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Cat Returns / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voice talents: (English/Japanese)
Haru: Anne Hathaway/ Chizuru Ikewaki
The Baron: Carey Elwes/ Yoshihiku Hakamada
The Cat King: Tim Curry/ Tetsuro Tamba
Muta: Peter Boyle/ Tetsu Watanabe
Prince Lune: Andrew Bevis/ Takayuki Yamada
Yuki: Judy Greer/ Aki Maeda

Walt Disney and Studio Ghibli present a film directed by Hiroyuki Morita. Adapted to English by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt. Adapted from the Manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Running time: 75 min. Rated G.

Disney has a lot to thank Pixar guru John Lassiter for, not only did Pixar extend its relationship with the once king of the animation universe by delaying the release of its final Disney CGI collaboration Cars until the profitable summer market in 2006 rather than rushing it out for the holiday season in 2005, but Lassiter was also the primary architect of the U.S. distributing deal Disney forged with Japan’s premiere animation studio, Academy Award winning anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s own Studio Ghibli. In the deal Disney obtained the U.S. distribution rights to all of Miyazaki’s masterful films (save My Neighbor Totoro which was snatched up by Fox long before the current popular anime video movement in America) as well as the rights to the great studio’s other properties; the first of which, Horiyuki Morita’s 2002 film The Cat Returns, makes its DVD debut this month.

Like the majority of Miyazaki’s work, Morita’s The Cat Returns does not play in the sword and sorcery/ sci-fi action of most anime popular in the U.S. video market, but tells an endearing and thoughtful coming of age story of a teenaged girl named Haru who is introduced to a hidden magical world due to an act of kindness she shows toward a cat. Haru is a typical teenager who is having trouble coming to terms with the mounting responsibilities leading up to adulthood. She thinks everything in her life is against her. Such occurrences as missing her breakfast because she can’t help hitting the snooze button on her alarm clock or the boy in which she is interested talking to another girl are life tragedies. Then, on the way home from school, she witnesses a cat crossing a busy stretch of road carrying a package wrapped with a ribbon. A truck speeds toward the unaware animal, undoubtedly about to end the creature’s life, when Haru throws herself across the road, scooping up the endangered cat with her lacrosse stick. The stick breaks as the two crash into the shrubbery of the dividing median, another devastating blow to the teen’s psyche. Then, to Haru’s amazement, the cat stands upright on his hind legs like a human, brushes himself off, thanks her for her good deed with eloquent speech, places his package back in his mouth, and plods off around the corner back on all fours.

This incident is merely the catalyst to a series of events that will teach Haru about real problems and how to deal with them with maturity, how even people of authority often lack maturity, and will introduce her to an entire universe that exists just beneath the attention span of human existence. Haru soon finds herself the object of the cat world’s attention, as they shower her with gifts for the good deed she has done, for the cat she saved is the prince of their world. But while the cattails in her yard and catnip in her clothes may seem splendid to the cats, Haru finds these newfound attentions more of a burden than a boon.

Soon she is visited by the Cat King himself to thank her for saving his son’s life. The Cat King is an utterly unique character, sitting on his carriage as if he never bothers to move himself, with eyes that liken him to the bug-eyed character actor Marty Feldman, who enriched so many Mel Brooks films. Eventually it is revealed that the Cat King is just as crazy as he looks when Haru is kidnapped and brought to the Kingdom of Cats to become Prince Lune’s bride. In an attempt to keep the captive Haru happy the Cat King marches a series of performers through the banquet hall to entertain the bride to be. As each performer fails to make the princess smile The Cat King has each one tossed out the window, which happens to be in one of the castle’s highest towers. It was all I could do to stay in my seat fighting off the laughter as each cat performer’s silhouette sailed out the tower window falling into oblivion.

Before Haru is kidnapped she enlists the help of the Cat Bureau to help her stave off the Cat King’s attempts to repay her. Muta is the fat cat who leads her to the Bureau’s chief The Baron, who promptly orders Muta to become Haru’s reluctant bodyguard. Muta treats all with the irreverence of a cat so large he has no need to show anyone or thing the respect he demands by his girth alone. The one thing in which he shows any interest beyond the blasé is catnip juice, which in turn provides one of the film’s most disturbingly humorous visuals.

The visual style of the piece is not as ornate as Miyazaki’s films, however still proves Studio Ghibli’s reputation as one of the best animation houses in Japan and the world. There is striking depth to some of the sequences that are given a mock third dimensional treatment, such as the scene where Haru originally saves Prince Lune from the speeding truck or when the Kingdom of Cats is first revealed to Haru and Muta. And only in Japanese anime can you find such imagination that utilizes objects and animals from the real world to create breathtaking images and ideas, like the swirling bird staircase that plays a part in the resolution of Haru’s fate.

The Cat Returns captures much of the youthful innocence and heartening sentiment of Miyazaki’s wonderful Kiki’s Delivery Service and throws in just a taste of the hidden mystery and eccentric characterization of his Academy Award winning Spirited Away. While here it is presented on a lesser scale than in those Miyazaki classics, The Cat Returns still outshines anything in the form of family entertainment produced by Disney or any other animation studio the U.S. has to offer, save maybe Pixar. And with Disney quickly abandoning its traditional animation style to compete with whomever ends up distributing Pixar after their relationship with that award winning studio is severed, Studio Ghibli may be traditional animation’s sole savior, at least in the family market.

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