Back when I first heard about this one, I kinda just wrote it off as a lesser Studio Ghibli effort purely because it sounded a bit too silly and, not being one of Hayao Miyazaki's very own works, I didn't feel the need to actually sit through it properly.
I was an idiot.
The Cat Returns is actually tons of fun and way more charming than I expected. Yes, the premise is ludicrous and the first time you see a cat stand up on its back legs and talk it's... insane but the film knows it, which is why Haru, our main character, lives through this whole mad ordeal completely wide-eyed and practically in shock. Anne Hathaway, who plays Haru in the English dub, does a terrific job at capturing those reactions. The plot sees Haru save a cat's life before being introduced to some hidden Cat Kingdom and being rewarded with a place on the throne if she agrees to marry the Prince. She is advised by an unknown voice to find something called the Cat Bureau where she befriends a big white cat called Muta (voiced by Peter Boyle) and a Willy Wonka-like suave cat only known as The Baron (Cary Elwes). It's all completely out there and yet there's something irresistible about this whole Alice In Wonderland-style story which lures you in with just how odd it is until you find yourself wondering what the hell the film could possibly have in store next.
Things just get curiouser and curiouser as Haru finds herself being invited to a feast at the heart of the Cat Kingdom where the Cat King, who is brilliantly played by Tim Curry, tries to keep her there as long as possible until she transforms completely into a cat and forgets who she really was altogether. But, of course, The Baron and his pals show up and help her out through towers, vortexes and mazes. It's basically a more light-hearted and easy-going version of Spirited Away but with cats. Loads and loads of cats. The world the film creates is colourful and completely unexpected making it a unique adventure despite its inherently derivative fairy-tale nature. It's very entertaining and very funny throughout, boasts some fantastic animation and writing, not to mention solid voice performances all around. The film's quirky sense of humour keeps the more ridiculous aspects of the story afloat and makes sure you easily lose yourself down this rabbit hole. As with most Studio Ghibli features, The Cat Returns also does a good job at introducing a whole bunch of new cute and cool creatures and giving its tale a beating heart.
While far from being as impactful as Spirited Away, The Cat Returns is still a completely enjoyable little film and a worthy variation on the old Alice In Wonderland template. It's a light watch but one you'll most likely fall in love with very quickly.