The Other Side of Animation 102: The Cat Returns Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Well, it’s been two years since I started reviewing animated films, and I feel like it’s time to talk a little about myself, and what kind of movies I like to watch. I tend to enjoy a large variety of genres and different directors. I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore film fan and watch every single classic film, but I watch what looks like something I would enjoy. However, I tend to mostly pick a film that I can watch with no need to learn about something beforehand, or require to research some lore or backstory before watching the film, so I can get into the story. I like to be instantly dropped in, and be able to not be distracted by in-your–face-world-building elements. In short, I want to be able to put in a movie, not have to be in a certain mood to watch it, sit back, and relax. I think that’s why for this two year special, I decided to choose the Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns. This is definitely an oddball of the Ghibli filmography. It was released back in 2002, and was originally conceived as a 20-minute short film for an amusement park. Unfortunately, they canceled the project, but Hayao Miyazaki decided to use the idea for his own studio. The individual sitting in the director’s chair this time around was Hiroyuki Morita. His name might not sound familiar, but he has done some work in the industry by starting at Ghibli as a key animator for My Neighbors the Yamadas and an in-between animator for Kiki’s Delivery Service. Morita went on to direct the anime series Bokurano, and was mostly an animator for stuff like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Tales from Earthsea, Afro Samurai: Resurrection, Lupin III: Bye Bye Lady Liberty!, and Tenchi Forever! As it stands, The Cat Returns is one of the few animated films from the studio that was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. We didn’t get this film until 2005, and by that time, people were more focused on Miyazaki’s newest film, Howl’s Moving Castle. Let’s claw our way in, and check out The Cat Return.

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The story follows a high schooler named Haru, voiced by Anne Hathaway. Haru is having a rough spot in her life, where it seems like nothing is really working out for her. After coming back from school one day, she ends up saving a cat that was about to get run over by a car. By luck, the cat she saved happened to be a magical cat prince, voiced by Andrew Bevis. The prince thanks her, and later that night, Haru is visited by the prince’s father, The Cat King, voiced by Tim Curry. After some misunderstandings and complications, Haru ends up getting engaged to the prince, and tries to find a way to get out of the situation. She then meets a whimsical character known as The Baron, a small humanoid cat-like being, voiced by Cary Elwes. He decides to help her out, but right when he agrees to help her, Haru gets kidnapped and taken to the Cat Kingdom. It is up to The Cat Baron, along with his sidekick Muta, voiced by Peter Boyle, to help Haru escape the Cat Kingdom.

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The first thing you will notice about the film is the animation style. It’s still the fantastic 2D animation you know from such a studio, but it’s the designs that are for the most part, different. Everything is a touch more simplistic, and the human designs aren’t in the traditional Studio Ghibli design, and are more anime-style. It can definitely lead to more fluid animation, and for a film like The Cat Returns, it suits it. The story is very light, and while that might sound like a downside, it’s not. It’s a fantasy adventure film that uses its 75 minutes well, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a film that knows what it wants to do. It’s just an easy-to-get-into fantasy adventure film. Now, that doesn’t mean The Cat Returns itself is lacking substance. It’s still a Studio Ghibli film, with likable leads, a solid set of side characters, a creative world, and a fun villain. It also has some amazing visuals from the Cat Kingdom to the action sequences that help cement the film’s more light-hearted tone. I have heard some people compare this to some fantasy comedies like the Princess Bride, and I can see where they are coming from. It’s funny and has an eccentric personality, but also acts like a fairy tale with odd rules and lush visuals. The film does have a message of never giving up on yourself or your dreams, but it’s more of a backseat moral. It wants to be more about the whimsical side of things, and to be a more comedic fantasy film, and I have no personal problem with that. It’s something that I have seen pop up from time to time, where critics in general dismiss a film being simple as a bad thing. I never really got that, since simple doesn’t always mean terrible. Of course, it does come down to execution, but even then, it’s not always seen in a positive light. I mean, do we call out The Wizard of Oz as being too simple and relying more on emotion than logic? No, we celebrate it as one of history’s best movies, and rightfully so. Sometimes, when I’m going out to get a bite, I’m not in the mood for something big, fancy, and complex. Sometimes, all I want is a cheeseburger that’s done well, and a $5 milkshake. Movies don’t always have to be complicated.

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As for everything else, the cast is pretty fantastic. Anne Hathaway does a pretty stellar job as Haru. While Haru might not be one of the classic Ghibli female characters, she is still interesting. She’s innocent and kind of light-headed, but she is still strong and wanting to make sense in a fantasy world, which is usually much harder than you would think. Cary Elwes is fantastic as The Baron, and it sounds like he was having a lot of fun playing another fantasy hero. Pete Boyle has some of the better laughs as Muta, and, of course, it’s hard not to talk about this film and not bring up Tim Curry’s old hippie performance of the Cat King. You can tell that he was having a blast as this expressive and hilarious villain. Then again, it’s Tim Curry, and he’s always a blast to watch, no matter what the film is. Andy Richter plays an assistant to the Cat King, and while I know in the Japanese dub, the character was female, and, yeah, it’s weird that they would do this, I think Richter pulls it off. Actually, the actors in this film do pull off excellent comedic timing. It’s probably one of the few Japanese-animated films I can think of, where the humor is easy to translate to any country. A lot of the times, and sorry if I have already said something similar in a previous review, comedy in different parts of the world ranges in what they define as funny, and it doesn’t always translate well when you place it in another country. A lot of older anime had this problem when you realize Japan loved wordplay and puns, and some of those don’t translate to English well. It’s why a lot of foreign films I tackle have more universally acceptable comedy, like old-fashioned Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin-style comedy, since you don’t need to know a foreign language to know why something in a film is funny in that form.

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I love this fantastical adventure, but I have some complaints. While the fight sequences are well-animated and are a blast to watch, the final fight between The Baron and the Cat King is underwhelming. There is a great action/chase sequence leading up to this battle, but then the battle itself only last a few seconds. I love the 75-minute runtime, but there are definitely times where the story could have been fleshed out more. You find out about Muta’s history in a scene near the very end of the film, and it doesn’t really add much. It’s more lore for the world of the Cat Kingdom, but not much else. There is this fun crow character voiced by Elliot Gould, and while it’s always good to hear him because his voice is unique, he doesn’t show up in the movie a whole lot. He pretty much shows up near the end of the first act, and then in the final act.

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The Cat Returns might not be one of Ghibli’s strongest films, or one of their most epic, but it’s still Studio Ghibli. It’s still well-animated, entertaining, well-acted, funny, and full of amazing imagery. I consider it the hidden gem of the studio, and to be honest, it has grown to be one of my favorites. Yeah it has its faults, but every film is going to have faults. It just depends on how big or bad they are to not be able to ignore. I would say go buy the Disney release of this film, but I would personally wait until the GKids re-release is available. Definitely not my favorite from the studio, but it’s still a splendid movie. Well, speaking of fantasy adventures, it’s time we look at 2017’s My Little Pony: The Movie. Everybody, thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!

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Worst to Best Animated Films of 2016 Finale

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Welcome back to the final part of the Worst to Best Animated Films of 2016. If you have not seen the previous part of the list, here is a link. These are the final ten films that I love, and would watch many times over. I consider them new classics that everyone should check out and support. Honestly, I would just tell you to buy them all, but that’s just me. Let’s get started

10. April and the Extraordinary World

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I know everyone is in a bit of a bum mood, since the future of Studio Ghibli is up in the air as Hayao Miyazaki works on his supposedly “last” film, so instead, I want to turn your attention to what some have considered a French Ghibli alternative. April and the Extraordinary World is a fun Castle in the Sky-style action adventure film set in a world where science never got past the steam age. It’s filled with high-flying action, sci-fi technology, and it’s just a fun adventure with fun characters. I still think some of the chemistry between characters could have been better, but I really loved watching this film. If you need your Castle in the Sky fix and to see how to do Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow better, then definitely watch this movie.

9. Long Way North

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Let’s call this the polar opposite of a Disney princess film. This French film about a Russian princess wanting to redeem her grandfather’s legacy is simple, yet complex. It’s easy to get into and well executed. The film can be very quiet and atmospheric with a honestly dark edge to the adventure she goes on to find her Grandfather’s ship. Granted, some of the voice work isn’t the best, but the film is gorgeously animated, and it has a great cast of characters with a story that shows the darker side of events like this. I was a tad disappointed that this film wasn’t seen by more people, since I truly think it’s a fantastic film. It’s easily the best film Shout! Factory has distributed, and I highly recommend you support this film by buying a copy.

8. The Boy and the Beast

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Man, I don’t know why people aren’t more willing to say Mamoru Hosoda is the new “Miyazaki”, because films like The Boy and the Beast are why he’s one of my new favorite directors. This tale with themes of father and son relationships, different family situations, and parents being up-front with your children is masterfully fused with the beautiful animation, great action, and likable characters. I think the pacing could have been better in the third act, but that shouldn’t detract from how amazing this movie is. I can’t wait to see what Hosoda does in the future.

7. Only Yesterday

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Yes, it’s technically a 2016 release since we never got it when Disney was bringing over all of the Ghibli films. Luckily, GKids decided to be awesome and help us out with bringing over probably one of my favorite Ghibli films to date. I love the more mature tone, the characters, the setting, and the voice cast. I adored Daisy Ridley as the lead, and I found her character to be rather complex and interesting. I’m sure everyone in their life has wondered if they feel like they got what they wanted out of their life. Sure, it can be a tad slow, and I can totally understand if someone finds this film boring, but I found it unabashedly fascinating. Easily one of my top five favorite films from the studio, and I think Isao Takahata’s best movie from the ones that I have seen from him.

6. The Little Prince

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Talk about a victim of circumstance. This amazing and mature CGI/stop-motion film from France with the director of the original Kung Fu Panda got screwed out of being in theaters, and whether it’s true that Paramount wanted the studio to pony up more cash for distribution and advertising or not, The Little Prince deserves more attention than it got. Yeah I get the complaint about the third act and such, but in the end, I loved my overall journey with this film from beginning to end.

 5. Moana

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In some regards, Moana had a disadvantage coming out right after the huge hit that was Zootopia, and being another Disney princess film right after the monster that was Frozen. Luckily, Moana I think does better in terms of an overall experience, while being progressive for a Disney princess film. Moana is a fantastic lead, Maui is a blast, the villains are hugely memorable, and the overall story is well-told. Sadly, it does take that dip in quality in the third act, and brings up very outdated Disney story elements, but I would call it safe than lazy, like some reviewers would argue. In the end though, Moana is a super fun adventure film, and is easily one of Disney’s best offerings in a year where they were doing pretty well.

4. My Life as a Zucchini

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Probably the most real and “human” animated film from last year. This Golden Globe/Oscar-nominated stop-motion film about a kid living in an orphanage is well animated, emotionally touching, charming, and it does feel human. Even with the English dub, the actors still bring in that calm and quiet spirit. The child actors were, once again, a situation where they would make or break the film, and well, they pulled it off. Granted, I wish the film was longer than 70 minutes, since I really enjoyed being with these characters and I liked the lead’s relationship with the police officer. It’s just an amazing film, and I would highly recommend checking out this award winner.

3. Zootopia

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While Moana is a fantastic film that I could watch over and over, Zootopia is the better movie. While it might not be super subtle with its themes, its clever writing, world building, hugely likable characters, great designs, and a fun sense of humor lifts itself up from such a problem. It was also a bigger risk, since it was Disney’s first animated film in a long time to use bipedal animals. If there was one film to take home the most awards for Best Animated Feature, I’m glad it was Zootopia. Sure, I wish Kubo and the Two Strings took the award, but hey, at the very least, I agree with Disney winning Best Animated Feature this time.

2. Miss Hokusai

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If there was a film that I wish could have gotten more acclaim and nominations, it would be Miss Hokusai. This down-to-earth, character-based film just won me over in an instant. I loved the daughter interacting with everyone and dealing with different situations in life, I loved the different art styles used for different parts of the story, I love the voice cast, I love Richard Epcar as Hokusai, I just loved this movie. Yes, there were some characters who you obviously knew were there for a very specific reason, but I don’t care. I love films like this since it shows animated films can be more than just wacky comedies, and that more adult animated films can be more than stoner comedies. It’s easily one of my top five favorite films GKids brought over, and I would recommend following the director and seeing what he does next.

1. Kubo and the Two Strings

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It should be no surprise that the film that had probably the biggest fighting chance of dethroning Zootopia at the Oscars is my favorite animated film from 2016. Kubo and the Two Strings surprised me in how much I loved it. I was not surprised by Finding Dory being great, I was not surprised by Kung Fu Panda 3 for being great, I was not surprised Moana was great, and you get the idea. I was surprised at how well-animated it was. The voice acting was amazing, the music was fantastic, the visuals were awe-inspiring, and the themes and tone of the film made it a darker family film. I love how it’s about life, and how you can’t live in life without hardships. The action was fantastic and well-choreographed.  I’m so upset this didn’t do better, and even if there is nothing wrong with Zootopia winning the Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, Kubo and the Two Strings deserved it more, and rightfully deserves the spot as my favorite animated film of 2016.

Well, that was 2016, a fantastic year for animation, and I know 2017 hasn’t been that great so far, but keep your hopes up and go see the smaller releases. Thanks for checking out this long list and I’ll make sure to get these out sooner rather than later next time.