Ink & Pixel: The Cat Returns

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

A long time ago, I had a cat named Peanuts. He was an Orange & White Tiger cat and was known to the neighborhood as one of the meanest cats on the block. Often times, he would escape from the house for hours on end to climb trees, sun himself atop our delapidated station wagon, and terrorize the local bird population. He believed himself to be the toughest creature every to walk on four legs. The other cats would never had guessed that we had him neutred at an early age, if you catch my drift.

My sister and I used to be convinced that upon leaving the house Peanuts was able to escape into a magical kingdom where cats were able to talk to one another and share in eachother's epic adventures. So you can imagine my delight and surprise when I'd found out that Studio Ghibli had been thinking along those same lines when they created THE CAT RETURNS.

Back in 1999, Studio Ghibli recieved a proposition from a Japanese theme park to create a 20 minute long short film to serve as part of one of their attractions. The film was dubbed "Cat Project" and was to follow the brief adventure of a cat named The Baron, a rather large cat named Muta, and a mysterious antique store set in Japan. Unfortunately, for practical reasons, the theme park had canceled the plans for the attraction.

However, so much work had already been put into the project at the time of its cancellation that Hayao Miyazaki, famed manga artist and anime film director (also my personal favorite animation director of all time) saw fit to hold onto the material to possibly be used at a later date. As time passed Studio Ghibli had made the decision to open up their arms and wallets to coaching dedicated artists into becoming the company's next feature film directors. "Cat Project" became a source of training material for these new up-and-comers in the industry. But what Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli didn't know was that Hiroyuki Morita was ready to take "Cat Project" to a whole new level, and in time- would pave the way for more talented film makers to create whole new worlds inside the company.

THE CAT RETURNS features the story of Haru, a reserved teenage girl who in the midst of making her way home one day, rescues a peculiar cat from being hit by an oncoming truck on a very busy road. This dark-colored feline,afflicted with heterochromia (a condition that causes cats to be born with two different different colored eyes), is Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. In an act of thanks, the cats of the Cat Kingdom bestow several gifts upon Haru, one of them being the prince's hand (paw?) in marriage, to which she mistakenly accepts.

Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki/Anne Hathaway), left feeling agast by the mistake she's made (a human can't marry a cat!), then begins to hear a mysterious female voice urging her to seek the counsel of the Cat Bureau. While jounerying toward the Cat Bureau, Haru encounters a rotound and crass feline named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe/Peter Boyle), who then introduces her to The Baron, a character first introduced by Studio Ghibli in their 1995 film WHISPER OF THE HEART (Yoshihiko Hakamada/Cary Elwes) Along with the aid of her new furry friends, Haru embarks on an adorable and action-packed journey into the Cat Kingdom filled with magic, treachary, and enough cats to cause even the most unallergic to main line antihistamine.

So, as I'd mentioned earlier, Studio Ghibli was looking to pump some new creative directorial blood through its veins, and what better way to achieve this than by encouraging their best artists and animators to strut their stuff and impress the already established masters of their craft? It was then that Hiroyuki Morita,whose animation credits included such popular Japanese animated films such as Akira, Lupin the 3rd, and Studio Ghibli's own My Neighbors the Yamadas, stepped up with a 525 page storyboard adaption of "Cat Project" later to be transformed into THE CAT RETURNS.

Under the tutilage of master filmmaker Hayoa Miyazaki, Morita assembled a team of 387 artists, animators, lighting technicians, and sound editors to bring THE CAT RETURNS to the big screen. Often times, filmmakers find their inspiration in the strangest places. In the case of THE CAT RETURNS, the character of Muta was based off of a rather obese white and brown spotted stray cat that had one day wandered onto the studio property.

Also, in what was most certainly one of the strangest nights of the film's production, many of the staff were called into the studio in the middle of the night for a surprise vocal recording session. Morita asked that the staff form a line, and one by one each of them was asked to “meow” into the microphone in whatever pitch came to their minds, so long as each pass resulted in a different sound effect. You can hear the results of these recording sessions all throughout the film. In fact, the sounds had become such an integral aspect of the film that they were later transcribed into a written “cat language.” This language eventually became so popular with many of the voice acting staff that some of them used the new language in their liner notes to help them remember the pitch and vibrato of each line of dialogue.

However, the Japanese weren't the only members of the CAT RETURNS voice cast to have to resort to strange vocal practices. Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Judi Greer, Kristen Bell, Tim Curry, and many of the other members of the English speaking cast had to follow a procedure known throughout the animation industry as ADR or Automatic Dialogue Replacement. ADR requires at least three essential roles in order to be of any use to the production team: The actor, the recording engineer, and the sound editor.

Within the process of ADR the actors must sync their voice performances with that of the original film. Sometimes this method of filmmaking requires that the actors designate mental patterns in which to speak their dialogue, silently counting off inside of their heads before speaking, waiting for that moment when their English speaking words will best match the art. There are even instances when the recording engineers will prepare a “click track” for the actors to follow. This means that while wearing a set of head phones the actors can listen to a series of audible “clicks” that will mark the moments in which they are supposed to speak their lines. This method saves time and money for the porduction staff and more than likely reduces the amount of frustration that can occur within the studio in general.

Staying on the subject of the film's audio, THE CAT RETURNS was at the time Studio Ghibli's biggest soundtrack production ever in their history of making feature length films. Under the skillful direction of Yuji Nomi, together with the Tokyo Phiharmonic Orchestra, Nomi composed an uplifting and fanciful soundtrack that mirrored the mood and intense action of the film by combining the talents of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra with that of massive pipe organs found inside of the recording space that Nomi had chosen. All manner of wind, wood, and brass embraced one another to create harrowing, yet soothing, melodies to heighten the movie watching experience.

With so many fantasy oriented elements in place to create the world of THE CAT RETURNS there is one in particular that I'd really like to bring to your attention before you leave to seek out this amazing film that is available and presented beautifully on Walt Disney DVD. Of course I am talking about the Cat Kingdom. In what some would consider a rather dark bit of content, the Cat Kingdom was actually conceived as a representation of a “cat afterlife.” Aoi Hiiragi, who penned the Japanese manga (comic book) “Neko no Danshaku, Baron”, a spin-off book featuring Muta and The Baron (characters first seen in the Studio Ghibli film WHISPER OF THE HEART) imagined what he considered to be a representation of where cats must go after they pass from our plain of existense. Catnip trees, majestic castles, cat-oriented marketplaces, and scratching post sidewalks were all a part of the fun in conceptulizing this feline wonderland in which to host the bulk of the films story.

Hiiragi, like my sister and I so long ago, imagined a world where your cat must escape to when they're away from your curious human eyes. Think of it as if your cat steps through a magical kitty door and into another world, tailor made just for their species. There are no dogs, no flea baths, an endless amount of crunchy cat treats, and catnip doobies for all!

So if you're a cat lover, or even if you're not, but would love to sit back and watch a truly magical and uplifting animated film with the kids I highly recommend that you check out THE CAT RETURNS, it's the purrfectly crafted film for kids and adults alike. It's a little bit SPIRITED AWAY, and even a little THE PRINCESS BRIDE in it's fantasy-style presentation and character developement. Also, it's my cat Moo Moo's favorite animated film and you better believe that holds a lot of weight in my house.

Extra Tidbit: Puss, a cat from England, lived to be 36 in human years: the oldest cat on record. Wow! That's a whole hell of a lot more than 9 lives!
Source: JoBlo.com
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