The Cat ReturnsFor those unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli, it is a Japanese animation film studio that is headed by Hayao Miyazaki, a widely respected and influential filmmaker in the animation world who is frequently compared to Walt Disney. Although not every film the studio releases is made by Miyazaki, his influence is deeply felt in every film the studio comes out with. I have seen a majority of the studio’s films and they are nothing short of being absolutely breathtaking, which is saying a lot considering that I’m not a big anime fan. The Cat Returns is the first Studio Ghibli film I saw that was not directed by Miyazaki. Despite it having a lot of Miyazai touches, overall the film failed to grab me.

Like in most Studio Ghibli films, the film’s main character is a young girl or boy who becomes embroiled in a huge struggle between two sides, which is all set in a fantastical world. The situations the main character is placed in and the role he/she has to take on forces the character to go through a journey of self-discovery and maturity. This film is no different. Our main character is a young schoolgirl (Haru) who saves a cat from getting run over by a truck. Little does she know that her Good Samaritan act is the beginning of a bizarre Alice In Wonderland-like adventure in which she gets kidnapped by cats and taken to the Cat Kingdom to marry a cat prince. I know all this sounds like a drug-induced trip, which is always a problem when you try to summarize any of the Studio Ghibli plotlines to someone. To appreciate their films, you simply have to see them to know what I’m talking about. Haru, the Alice in this story, is a likable enough character, but she lacks the strong, resolute attributes that define Miyazaki’s heroes. Haru was pretty much like any stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl that you see in anime. She lacks a strong character arc and so by the end of the film, the character has changed little from what we see in the beginning.

The remaining characters in the film are no where as interesting as the characters Studio Ghibli has entertained us with over the years. The titular character (The Baron) is a mysterious James Bond-ish gentleman cat who helps Haru get out of an arranged cat marriage. The Baron lacked much depth to his character. We’re never told much of anything as to who he is or where he comes from. His partners are a fat white cat (Muta) and a raven (Toto), who you don’t see much of in the film. Muta is the most interesting and defined character. He accompanies Haru into the Cat Kingdom and as the story unfolds, we discover his mysterious past. I enjoyed his character quite a bit and wished that the same amount of attention could be given to the other characters.

The Cat Kingdom that Haru is kidnapped to failed to impress me. One of the hallmarks of any Studio Ghibli film is the world it puts you in. The imagination and creativity that is put into creating these worlds is simply amazing. Like the classic Disney films, these films make you want to inhabit these worlds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of what we see in The Cat Returns. A large portion of the film is spent in the real world where Haru lives. This environment was in fact more visually interesting than the Cat Kingdom. Considering the obvious similarity to Alice in Wonderland, I was expecting this huge and magical environment where the cats lived. Instead, we’re given a few Hobbit-looking huts where the kitties live and a pretty unimpressive-looking castle where the Cat King lives. Thats it.

Despite my issues with the characters and the visual look of the film, I was willing to forgive all of these problems so long as the film had a strong narrative. I liked the idea of giving a feline spin to Alice in Wonderland, especially with Studio Ghibli doing it. Unfortunately, there is nothing fun or escapist with this story. In fact, many of the setups felt too random and strange. We are given a hodgepodge of settings and situations that feel disjointed. The film fails to place you inside its world, which is especially important when you’re trying to create a unique setting. If the audience cannot believe in the world you’ve created for it, you will lose the audience’s interest and attention. This is what this film suffers from.

If you absolutely love anime, you won’t do yourself a disservice by checking this out. Despite its flaws, its still better than most of the anime I’ve seen out there. If you’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli film and/or you’re not really into anime, then avoid this film and stick to the films directed by Miyazaki (any of them will do). I didn’t particularly care for this film, but I’m still glad I watched it for the few things that did work.