Animation is often regarded as a second-class medium among the visual arts, generally seen as a universally juvenile method of storytelling. Meaningful storytelling and creative aesthetics now come second to marketability and merchandising consideration, so say the detractors.
No subset of the animation industry comes under less fire, however, than Japanese anime studios. Derided for flashy, shallow content full of nerdy swords and sorcery, and not without its share of physics-defying breasts, anime is perceived as the worst offender. It even alarms audiences well steeped in bizarre Adult Swim programs like “Family Guy” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”
There are, of course, plenty of examples of fine animation to counter such negative opinions. Bottom-line-obsessed television only offers rare successes; it seems that feature-length format offers the chance for studios like Pixar to develop truly great animated works. Anime, too, has its crew of geniuses in Studio Ghibli, responsible for the popular “My Neighbor Totoro” and a catalog broad enough to include the violent historical fantasy of “Princess Mononoke” alongside WWII drama “Grave of the Fireflies.”
Ghibli’s reputation for excellence enables the Japanese company to export its films without edits, a common difficulty for anime productions that are dumbed down by enterprising importers. This good fortune, along with a Disney licensing deal that brings A-grade talent to the English voice dubbing, allows for a more evocative and complete product than many other imports offer. Though the films themselves are not necessarily to everyone’s tastes, there’s no denying that Ghibli films meet or exceed the Hollywood standard of quality.
This weekend I watched the film “The Cat Returns,” a rare specimen from Studio Ghibli not directed by their founder and master Hayao Miyazaki. Hiroyuki Morita helmed this anime adaptation, dubbed into English in 2002 by an outstanding cast. Anne Hathaway voices Haru, a normal if frazzled teenager trying to navigate schoolwork and nascent romantic feelings alongside her friend Hiromi (Kristen Bell).
After saving a cat from collision with a truck, she finds out the subject of her kindness is the stately, bipedal Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom (Andrew Bevis). He assures her she will be repaid for her good deed, as his father, voiced by a pitch-perfect Tim Curry, undertakes a bizarre onslaught of gratitude. When the extent of Haru’s troublesome situation becomes clear, she seeks the aid of the Cat Bureau, headed by the charming Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Cary Elwes); his curmudgeonly associate Muta (Peter Boyle) shadows Haru as she descends into the Cat Kingdom to change her fate.
The film does not shy away from whimsy or spectacle. Some may find the 19th-century aristocratic garb of the lead characters ridiculous, and the plot’s convenience and quick resolution might not satisfy a viewer seeking a more epic animated feature. The narrative, in my opinion, benefits from brevity; the twists and turns of the story develop, but aren’t offered the opportunity to get convoluted.
It’s obvious that the Cat Kingdom isn’t a gritty metropolis. There is, however, a pleasure that’s undeniable in seeing the feline universe in all its richness. Secret Service cats lurk in the background, their fur patterned after a sharp black suit; fish imagery adorns the royal jewelry and accents the castle interiors. The visuals of the animals are crisp and fluid, most arresting in large clowders, and the scenery — Ghibli’s usual masterstroke — astounds even at its most simple and pastoral.
Again, Disney rounds up a top-notch cast for “The Cat Returns”; Anne Hathaway plays Haru subtly, never emoting too thickly even in climactic sequences, while Cary Elwes resurrects all the charisma and wit of Westley from “The Princess Bride” in the Baron. By the end, though, I was left wanting slapstick with Peter Boyle and Elliott Gould swapping barbs as Muta and the friendly crow Toto. The dub work meets the high standard of the animation, a rare feat even for a Studio Ghibli film.
It may not entirely convince your obstinate roommate that cartoons can get serious, but “The Cat Returns” is an action-comedy that avoids the pratfalls commonly associated with anime. Fun, brief and pristinely made, the effortless English-language track only amplifies the quality of the tidy import. For only slightly more than an hour of your time, you can see a fine specimen of animated film.