The Cat Returns – When ordinary schoolgirl, Haru, rescues a cat from almost being run over she is astonished to learn that not only can it walk, but it can talk! The saved cat reveals himself a royal Prince, and his father, the Cat King, is determined to show his gratitude (whether Haru wants him to or not). Haru enlists the help of the living cat statuette, The Baron along with his over large and grumpy cat friend, Muta. But when Haru finds herself betrothed to the Prince, kidnapped to live in the Kingdom of Cats (and slowly transforming into a cat herself) will her new friends be able to rescue her before it is too late?

The Cat Returns (2002) – Hiroyuki Morita

The Cat Returns Studio Ghibli suitable for kids

Rating: U

Running Length: 75 mins

Starring (English Dub): Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Tim Curry

Genre: Animated, Comedy, Action / Adventure



‘The Cat Returns’ marks a spin-off entry in the Studio Ghibli back catalogue whose origins can be found in the charming and whimsical, ‘Whisper Of The Heart’. The latter movie had a short fantasy sequence where the dashing Baron – dapper in hat, cane, and suit – went on fantastical adventures. This minor part proved so popular that Studio Ghibli brought the Baron back for a feature length tale of cat-based shenanigans.

Marking only the second film by this point that wasn’t directed by Ghibli founders Isao Takahata (‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’) or Hayao Miyazaki (‘My Neighbour Totoro’), ‘The Cat Returns’ is a small scale but delightful comedy movie with a good dash of fantastical elements and swashbuckle adventuring. Unlike most other Ghibli films, Haru (a young Anne Hathaway in the English Dub) isn’t a strong, stoic and independent female lead. Instead, she is your typical Japanese schoolgirl type: clumsy, innocent, prone to crushes, and baffled by the events that sweep her away.

Whilst the movie is ostensibly a ‘return’ for the dashing Baron (voiced with total suave confidence by Cary Elwes), he is used in good and sparing doses. Haru leads the show with her ‘every girl’ sweetness tinged with lack of confidence in herself. She is so unlike most Ghibli protagonists that ‘The Cat Returns’ stands out even more as a very light-hearted and fun movie to indulge in which, unlike most western efforts, doesn’t devolve into over the top comedy mugging or sickly sweet sentimentality. All the usual staples of Ghibli are here only with less pathos and more fun, clearly aimed at the younger side of the audience.

Once the action moves to the ‘castles and swords’ Cat Kingdom, the movie makes no qualms about shifting to a slapstick approach with lashings of ‘rescue the girl’ adventuring for good measure. The permanently bad tempered Muta (also returning from ‘Whisper Of The Heart’) adds plenty of amusing bite into the dialogue, a colourful but minimal cast breathe good humour into the scenes (we particularly enjoy the heavily put upon court advisor!), and as Haru grows in confidence so the movie quickly draws matters to a gorgeous closing sequence involving cheating mazes, collapsing towers, magic portals, and rescue party bird staircases!  At a short 75 minutes, ‘The Cat Returns’ is an excellent choice for children young and old. Find a sunbeam through your window, settle down with the kids, and bask in the endearing warmth that is a family movie at its sweetest.


Haru sees a cat that is about to be run over by a large truck. She runs out into the road in order to rescue it and barely avoids being run over herself. Haru is chastised by a friend for doing this but we mention it in case such behaviour is imitable.

In an effort to shower Haru with gifts, cats place a large amount of boxes in her school locker. The boxes spill out when she opens the door and move a little before it becomes apparent they have live mice inside. A large amount of cats then come running through the corridor and some attack the mice. Some mice are shown to fly up in the air. This is treated as a comedic moment and is quickly cut away from.

Muta is a very large and grumpy white cat. Haru almost sits on him accidentally and distractedly calls him a ‘big fatso’. She later regrets calling him this – although many characters make fun of Muta’s weight with him being called such things as  ‘fat servant”, “fat friend”, and, “fatso” throughout. He is irritated by such names and usually responding with an insult of his own. He never appears upset by such taunting which is usually done either semi-affectionately, or by characters which Muta doesn’t know or care about.

Haru grabs a cat by the scruff of the neck and lifts it bodily up in irritation. She does this twice in the movie but, beyond being startled, the cats never seem distressed or in pain.

Haru is kidnapped by a large amount of cats and screams ‘don’t let them take me away!’. However, this is an exciting action sequence and she tries to help her rescuers so the dialogue is unlikely to upset.

Once the setting changes to the Cat Kingdom (where every character bar Haru is a cat), Haru is startled to learn that she is slowly turning into a cat herself. When she is taken to try on dresses, she sees her partial transformation in the mirror and screams. Again, this is a comedic moment and unlikely to upset.

Muta cannot control his eating and spies a huge glass jar full of ‘catnip jelly’. The scene cuts away but when it comes back Haru finds that Muta is stuck inside the glass jar and encased in the jelly, apparently dead. She is distraught by this. She is taken to a banquet hall where many entertainers try to entertain her, the Cat King, and his court. However, she spends the next 5 minutes of the movie sobbing, much to the irritation of the Cat King who keeps ordering more and more entertainment. This section may upset smaller children, although there are comedic parts to contrast Haru’s emotional state. Later, things are not as they appear and the situation resolves itself.

One performer angers the King as Haru is not entertained and keeps on crying. The King makes a ‘slit throat’ gesture and two guards grab the performer and throw him out of the window. The scene cuts to outside the castle and zooms out so we can see the performer plummet from a very high tower. No impact is shown and this character is not mentioned again. This happens a second time shortly after to another performer. No one shows any concern to the cats thrown so it is never remarked on if they live or die as a result of being thrown.

One entertainment consists of a knife throwing cat who uses a female cat assistant. The assistant is wearing a bikini top and one of the shoulder straps is severed by a thrown knife accidentally. It causes her bikini to ‘fall open’ and she desperately covers her chest and runs off, sobbing. However, there is no ‘nudity’ or anything resembling actual ‘breasts’ shown, just flat fur. Indeed, many other cats have no clothes on and this is not deemed as nudity. The moment is just a comedic one, but a little odd! When this happens the camera shifts to two guests of the king who look like stereotypical middle-eastern humans in that the ‘male’ cat has a ‘sultan’; style headdress and the ‘female’ cat is dressed in a full length niqab, with only her eyes showing. The male leers at the assistant for a moment before glancing at his ‘wife’ and then looking away, embarrassed. The Japanese are typically not very politically correct in this manner and while this moment isn’t meant to be offensive, the blatant stereotyping may upset some adults.

The Cat King is generally very lecherous and decides he wants to marry Haru. He calls her ‘babe’ all the time and doesn’t take no for an answer. However, he does not get his own way and nothing he actually manages to do is inappropriate.

Once the action moves back into the real world, several characters plummet from the sky from a great height. One character panics and shouts ‘I don’t want to die!’ and ‘I’m scared’. This lasts less than a minute and the character is reassured by others before help arrives.

Haru is rather taken with the charismatic Baron and at one point blushes when he catches her looking. At the end of the movie she tells him that she ‘may have a little crush’. He is gracious upon hearing this and nothing comes of it.


Studio Ghibli films range in age appropriateness to the very young up to older children of around 10. However, ‘The Cat Returns’ is clearly aimed at the younger side of the scale due to its sweet and innocent adventuring, comedy angle, and familiar yet fantastical plot of talking, walking cats. The Baron is a wonderfully charismatic figure which will undoubtedly resonate with kids who enjoy a ‘hero’ character, and Haru is definitely engaging as the unlucky ‘every girl’ dragged into an adventure. We would therefore recommend this movie as appropriate to children aged 3 and over.

  • Violence: 1/5 (fantasy based with sword fights although no injury ever incurred. Characters thrown from a high window)
  • Emotional Distress: 1/5 (Haru is upset due to Muta’s predicament and sobs for a while)
  • Fear Factor: 0/5
  • Sexual Content: 1/5 (the knife throwing / bikini scene) 
  • Bad Language: 0/5
  • Dialogue: 1/5 (several ‘fat’ jokes. Light threats not taken seriously. Talks of ‘crushes’. Some mild fear)
  • Other Notes: Deals with themes of having confidence in yourself, royalty, forced marriage, kindness to strangers, schoolgirl crushes, not judging others by appearance, blind pride, and gratitude for good deeds.

Words by Michael Record


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