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Walt Disney Home Video presents
"Who knows, maybe I'd fit in better with a bunch of cats. You get to lie around all day, don't you? A cat's life sounds great. Eat all the food you want, take naps in the sun, forget about all your problems..."
DVD ReviewHayao Miyazaki, commonly called the Walt Disney of Japan, is getting up there in years. He and his partner, Isao Takahata, who have spent the last few decades trading off directing duties on animated films released through their production house, Studio Ghibli, have been looking for directors to carry on their legacy after they're gone, in hopes the imaginative spirit of films like Spirited Away, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Kiki's Delivery Service will live on. The Cat Returns, released in Japan in 2002, is the first major Ghibli production overseen by a newcomer (Hiroyuki Morita, who worked on the storyboards for Akira), and though the picture doesn't have the depth or magic of the best Ghibli movies, it seems Takahata and Miyazaki have nothing to worry about.
Haru (voiced in the English dub by Anne Hathaway) is a clumsy girl who can't walk without tripping over, let alone attract the wandering eyes of the cute boy she likes. One typically harried day, she saves an unusual cat from getting hit by a car, and is shocked when the animal thanks her out loud. That night, Haru is visited by a cavalcade of cats, including the Cat King (Tim Curry) himself. The king's toady (Andy Richter) explains the king wishes to repay Haru for saving his son. The next day, Haru wakes up to find her yard has been overgrown with cat tails, her locker at school has been stuffed with nicely boxed live mice, and her pockets have been loaded with catnip (which makes he popular with the local feline population).
Haru receives another visit from the king's assistant, who tells her the biggest surprise is yet to come—she's to be taken to the Kingdom of Cats and wed to the young cat prince she saved. Though she doesn't really want to get married, Haru thinks she might fit in better in a world where you can sleep all day and eat whatever you want (a thought I've had many times when I've had to crawl carefully out of bed to avoid disturbing one or more cats as I get ready for work). Before the cats come to collect her, a mysterious voice compels Haru to visit the Cat Bureau, where she meets oafish Muta (Peter Boyle), the crow Toto (Elliot Gould), and the dapper Baron (Cary Elwes), a dashing cat statuette brought to life. The trio agrees to keep her safe from the minions of the cat king, so she won't be forced to marry against her will.
The Cat Returns is a typically creative Ghibli project, with wonderful character designs and clever detail (the secret service agents who guard the king are black and white tuxedo cats with suit-like fur). But it feels incomplete (especially with a running time of just over an hour), and doesn't have the resonance of Ghibli's masterpieces. The story is simpler, and the characters aren't fully explored. Things move along quickly, particularly once Haru is whisked away to the Kingdom of Cats, and the emphasis is on wacky chase sequences rather than character development. The central lesson, about the importance of believing in yourself, is clearly communicated, but without the subtlety or heart on display in, say, Kiki's Delivery Service. Still, I suspect kids and Miyazaki fanatics both will find a lot to like.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The Cat Returns is one of the newest Studio Ghibli films, and looks pretty good on DVD. The image is very clear, with bright colors free from a noisy or grainy appearance. There is some visible edge enhancement in spots (always a challenge with so many hard lines), but the problem isn't much of a distraction (at least, not on a smaller display, where it is barely noticeable).
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: On the audio side, there's the new English dub in DD 5.1 or the original Japanese in 2.0 (a 2.0 French dub is included as well). Both mixes are comparable in terms on surround action—both keep things confined to the front soundstage for the most part. Each track exhibits good stereo separation across the front mains, while the decent English dub anchors speech in the center channel.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bambi: Special Edition, The Incredibles, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind/Porco Rosso/The Cat Returns, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky
3 TV Spots/Teasers
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: This second wave of Studio Ghibli releases includes more in the way of bonus features. They aren't quite the lavish multi-disc sets released in Japan, but they're a good site better than what was included on Princess Mononoke or Kiki's Delivery Service.
Disc 1 starts off with a Behind the Microphone featurette (8:58) on the English voice cast, with comments from Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, Andy Richter, and Tim Curry. It covers the exact same ground as every other voice-acting piece on a Disney DVD, but I always watch them anyway.
Much more interesting is the 35-minute Japanese making-of piece, oddly presented in dubbed English. The documentary covers the genesis of the project as a commissioned animated short for a Japanese theme park, and discuss why acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki decided not to direct it, choosing instead to give an up and coming filmmaker a shot at handling a complex project.
The first disc also has a reel of Japanese trailers and TV spots presented without English subtitles. It looks like there are three longer trailers and three brief TV spots, but it's hard to tell.
Disc 2 includes the entire film in rough storyboard form with either English or Japanese audio. It's an interesting look at the planning that goes into every scene, but not something I'd want to watch for over an hour.
Rounding out the set is a gallery of trailers, with clips for The Incredibles, Bambi: Special Edition, and other studio Ghibli titles: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind/Porco Rosso/The Cat Returns, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsThe Cat Returns doesn't have the lyrical imagery or spiritual depth of the best Studio Ghibli features, but it more than makes up for it with its quirky characters and frenetic pacing.
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