There are times, in those early hours of the morning or when I'm relaxing, that my mind ends up wandering. Sometimes it goes far afield, and sometimes it stays right where I am, kind of playing around my feet like a kitten with a ball of string. When watching today's #2LR movie, The Cat Returns, the best comparison that I can make is to one of those half-aware dreams.
To get the real-life details of the movie down on paper, this is a Studio Ghibli movie, though it's not a Miyazaki film. It's actually a pseudo-sequel to the one of the few non-Miyazaki Ghibli theatrical films, Whisper of the Heart... which, despite owning (and enjoying) the movie, I have not done a Too Late Review of. At any rate, both movies share a specific character... a cat figurine that comes to life, either through stories of the protagonist (in Whisper of the Heart) or by itself, to help the main protagonist in this movie.
Consider the below Spoiler Space...
The movie presents Haru, a high-school girl who is reluctant to get up, occasionally late to school (and laughed at by her troubles), and crushing on a boy who's already taken. While she and her friend Hiromi are in town after school, she sees a cat carrying a curious wrapped package. The cat attempts to cross the street, but is set upon by a large truck. Haru gives her best efforts to save the cat with the device in her hand... a lacrosse stick, which she uses to scoop up the cat as she dashes across the road.
The cat is safe, and oddly enough talks to her afterward to thank Haru for her actions. Haru is confused, especially since no one else heard the cat on the busy street. She thinks nothing of it, though her lacrosse stick is broken. That evening, she goes to bed but hears a yowling out by the road. There's a procession of cats, but these cats all walk on their hind legs. At the tail end (HA!) of the procession is the King of Cat Kingdom, who thanks Haru for her actions... she saved the Crown Prince from death, and the King wants to reward Haru for what she's done.
The next morning, Haru's yard is overgrown with catnip, which she is unfortunately allergic to. She dashes off to school, but finds that her shoe locker is filled to the brim with mice. Later on, her friend calls her to tell her that there's a couple gross of lacrosse sticks all over the hallway, and to ask Haru what to do with them. In the afternoon of this very strange day, another cat comes up to Haru on its hind legs and tells Haru that the Cat King wants Haru to become his daughter-in-law, to marry the prince that she saved.
Haru is taken aback, but thinks very long and hard about the offer. The messenger cat takes her silence as consent and tells her to expect the Cat King to come around to collect her in the evening. After the messenger cat leaves, Haru realizes that she may not want to do this... and she hears a voice telling her to find the Cat Bureau via a cat that is waiting for her at one of the cross-streets. Haru seeks out this cat, an exceedingly chunky cat named Muta, and he leads her through quite a few paths to the Cat Bureau. There she meets both the cat figurine mentioned above, Baron, as well as a stone crow that comes to life, Toto.
While Haru is trying to process all of this, a massive group of cats comes to the Cat Bureau and pulls her away from her conversation with Baron. Muta is pulled along with the cats, while the Baron and Toto try to follow along as best as possible. The cats prove too quick... Haru and Muta are deposited in the Cat Kingdom while the Baron and Toto are on the outside looking in.
Haru enjoys the Cat Kingdom at first... it's always noon, and the grass is perfect for catnaps. Shortly after though, she's taken to the palace to be fitted into a dress... and finds herself starting to turn into a cat. It's explained that she'll turn fully into a cat in order to facilitate the marriage between herself and the Prince, and Haru wants none of it. A banquet is held for her later on, and the whole time she's despondent. The Baron shows up and finally perks her spirits up, and manages to get her away from the Cat King.
We find out that Haru has a chance to go back to the human world, that there's a portal at the top of a tower that's surrounded by a maze. If she makes it back by morning, she'll be human again. At first the Cat King is content to watch her get lost, but she and the Baron figure out the secret to the maze and get through to the tower. The Cat King gets mad and ends up blowing the tower before she can reach the very tip-top to go through the portal. At this point, it's revealed that Muta was a fearsome criminal (he ate all the fish in the pond) who was booted out of the Cat Kingdom, and he tries his level best to send Haru on her way out. Thanks to timely intervention from the Prince and the cat that the Prince really would like to marry, the Cat King is thwarted and Haru manages to make it back to the human world.
She bids a tearful goodbye to her new-found friends and ends up at the school for another school day. During the epilogue of the story, we find out that Haru's pulled herself together far more, her adventures have helped her to realize who she is and what she needs to do in life... she gets up to go to school early, doesn't moon over her crush, and generally acts like an adult.
Spoiler space over.
If you managed to make it through the plot, you'll see why I introduced the movie the way I did. To me, this is almost the perfect vision of one of those lazy dreams put up on a movie screen. The plot starts pretty conventionally, but progresses to weirder, and weirder, and weirder... little by little, so that you don't quite wake up from your dream, but it's far stranger to end with than it was to begin with. Next thing you know, the day's crept up on you and you have to move around again in the "real world". Heck, one of the plot points has to do with the time-limit set by the rising sun... if that's not a metaphor for the dreamy part of the plot to "wake up", I don't know what is.
I suppose though that one of the depressing parts of this movie is the whole "growing up" thing. The protagonist is shown as far more adult, far more put-together, far less impulsive, far more responsible... it almost feels like that equals "no imagination" to me. There's times that I've had little to no imagination when I've been an adult, and I realize looking back on those times that I was also pretty glum and bored with life at times, especially those times when I was by myself. Writing has been my primary outlet for getting through the imagination-less solitary glum parts of my life, and I hope that Haru has her lacrosse to get her through those parts of her life.
In Whisper of the Heart, the message is to follow your dream, to become good at what you enjoy doing and seeing where life takes you. In this movie, I feel that the message is to not get caught up in someone else's dream (e.g. the Cat King's), and to make sure that you're comfortable with your own self before trying to work towards a dream of your own. It does make a lot of sense, in that at the end of the movie Haru has learned more about herself and is comfortable being who she is rather than defined by either her previous actions (such as saving the Prince, or helping those in need) nor is she willing to play someone else's role in life. She's now in the position to dream for herself, to create her own world rather than borrow the Cat Kingdom's world to just laze around in. So, in some odd way, the message of this movie is the prequel to Whisper of the Heart despite the characters making a reappearance for a sequel.
Final grade for this movie: 2.9
It's especially good for a lazy afternoon, where your dreams and the movie's vision end up glomming together...