“It wasn’t long enough” was all my teenager objected to in ‘The Cat Returns’ (‘Neko no ongaeshi’), the latest fine fable from Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio to reach Paris.
At 75 minutes, the story of Haru, a schoolgirl who is only too richly rewarded for saving the life of a cat, lacks the epic sweep of a ‘Princess Mononoke’ but clearly it mainly targets a younger audience.
The Miyazaki magic shines through in this humorous screen-poem by Hiroyuki Morita, henceforth another name to watch. The small children in the cinema thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as all cat-lovers will. They were too young to notice how the sorcerer’s apprentice more than tipped his cap to Lewis Carroll.
The elegant feline Haru rescues from the wheels of an articulated truck proves to be an eligible prince, whose grateful and decadent father decrees that the girl deserves to visit the Kingdom of the Cats and will make the ideal spouse for his son.
Light as a child’s dream, the fairy tale packs in plenty of adventure. Haru finds allies in the most aristocat Baron (on the left in the Ghibli pic) and in Muta, the bruiser tomcat with a heart of gold.
These characters apparently made a first appearance in ‘Whispers of the Heart’, drawn from work by the same manga artist, Aoi Hiiragi, which we missed.
Music, as ever, plays a big part in the film. Yuji Nomi’s score can be sweeter than syrup at times, there’s a funny chase and a wonderful waltz, and fans of the more “modern” classics will enjoy picking out pastiches of Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and others. It works very well. Those who fell for ‘Anastasia‘ will know what I mean, but the only song comes with the credits.
For the youngsters, there’s also a gentle moral presented with the humanism characteristic of the bigger productions from Ghibli (a Sahara wind). Haru can only avoid a marriage she doesn’t want by “becoming herself”.
The French called this one ‘Le Royaume des Chats‘. Let’s hope it’s a prelude to longer, more developed plots from Morita, who hitherto animated some of the key passages, according to Allociné (français), in films by the master himself.
The art director here was Naoya Tanaka, whose style is pure and often pastel. If Haru herself is little different from many a Japanese screen child, Tanaka is very attentive to the portrayal of the cats … and pulls off a stunt I’ve not often seen in a 2D movie with a venture into slow motion.
For a most promising start: 7/10.