When we take a look at the current film landscape, you'll see sequels, prequels, and tons of films in franchises that expand as time goes on. It's especially true in animation where almost every single major animation studio has helmed at least one sequel or prequel in their catalog. Out of the many animation studios out there, Studio Ghibli is one studio known for mainly sticking with original animated films and never really dabbled with continuing any of their films despite their beloved status. The only time they have expanded upon one of their films was in 2002 with "The Cat Returns", a spinoff to "Whisper of the Heart" focusing on the cat statue known as the Baron that entranced the protagonist Shizuku. This time he has his own adventure and it probably might be one of the most fun films that Studio Ghibli has ever made. This one really surprised me and I think it might be their funniest film and one that I enjoyed way more than I expected too.
A shy and timid young high school girl named Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) has been feeling unconfident about herself. She feels like her life is a mess and that everything just doesn't seem to be going the way she expected. One day, she ends up rescuing a cat from nearly getting run over by a truck only to discover the cat is one from a magical kingdom of cats and also just so happens to by the prince of the land, Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada). While she initially is awarded strange gifts from the Cat King (Tetsurō Tanba), her dilemma only gets worse when she discovers the King has arranged for her to marry the prince and become the princess of the Cat Kingdom. Wanting the strange dilemma over, Haru must enlist the help of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and a fat cat named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe) to get her out of the kingdom of cats before she is turned into a cat herself.
I've been very surprised by the films from Studio Ghibli and this is one of the films that really surprised me the most when watching it. I went into expecting the film to be a fun, lightweight adventure that was a minor blip in their catalog and I ended up enjoying this film way more than I expected. It's obviously not a film like "Whisper of the Heart" so don't go into this film expecting a film on that level, but it's certainly one that has a lot of uniqueness and personality to it that made this a fun watch from start to finish. I think what really makes this film so fun to watch is the hilarious story. It's obviously a very goofy film, but it's the right kind of goofy along the same lines as "Pom Poko". A story about a girl being betrothed to a cat prince and having to figure out how to get out of it is obviously gonna be weird, but it's my kind of weird, and it's a story that had just the right amount of energy and plenty of humor to keep me entertained. I was really surprised by how hilarious this film and the jokes were with most of them getting pretty big laughs from me. Some funny moments in the film include a scene where Haru discovers the strange gifts from the cats including a bunch of cattails planted all around her house and even a bunch of mice put in gift boxes that are stuffed in her locker as well as a funny chase scene as Haru is whisked away to the Cat Kingdom and the Baron and Muta try to rescue her. One of the funniest jokes in the film involves performers in the Cat Kingdom trying desperately to cheer up Haru who is saddened by her discovery that she is turning into a cat but when none of the performers make her smile, the King decides to have his servants throw the performers out the window of his palace. Humor like that was just so goofy and I was really laughing hard at it and there were a lot more jokes like that where it came from.
I do wish that the first act was a bit more fleshed out as we could see what Haru's life was like a bit more before she rescues the prince and is whisked away into the Cat Kingdom, but the second and third acts were both so entertaining that it was easy for me to overlook. As far as the animation goes, it's certainly beautiful. This is the third film from Studio Ghibli not to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata as it was rather a film directed by Hiroyuki Morita, who has worked as an animator on other classic Japanese animated films outside of Studio Ghibli like "Akira", "Perfect Blue", and even "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence". You can definitely see his influence on pulling his other work into the studio and it helps give the film a unique look as the character designs definitely reminded me of other Japanese anime films compared to the ones from Ghibli and I think it really helped make the film look interesting. I also really loved the backgrounds in the film which were very warm and looked like they were illustrations drawn with colored pencils. The look of the Cat Kingdom isn't exceptionally detailed, but its simplicity is so elegant and refined that it was very splendid to look at. As far as the characters go, they are also very entertaining to watch. Haru was a fun protagonist who I thought was gonna be a bit whiny with how timid she is but ended up being one that has a lot of quirkiness and charm. Her growth throughout the film was also special as we see her try to accept herself and not let others walk all over her like they do in her life. She also has fun chemistry with the Baron who has the mystique and charisma as he did in "Whisper of the Heart" and the other new characters were lots of fun too with Muta being a grouch who is constantly obsessed with food and the Cat King being a funny antagonist who is so determined that he wants to see Haru as his daughter in law that he fails to realize he's causing the problems to begin with. These characters really had a lot of charm that I just wanted to see more of them though none overstay their welcome.
In all, "The Cat Returns" is an entertaining and hilarious film from Studio Ghibli. The story is really funny and has some entertaining moments, the animation has personality and a sense of uniqueness, and the characters were all fun and quirky with lots of charm to spare. This is probably one of the most surprising films I've watched from Studio Ghibli and I really liked this one a lot. It may not be as perfect or heartwarming as "Whisper of the Heart", but it still has a lot of charm that I can definitely see myself returning to.