Studio Ghibli is one of the most well known animation studios in the world. Over the last 30 years they have created some of the finest animated classics of the late 20th century. Last year it was announced the studio would cease as a production environment, but continue to issue the copyrights for Studio Ghibli characters. Disney have since the early 2000's (since around Spirited Away) been issuing the Ghibli catalog on DVD with the exception of a few titles. Over the last 3 years they have been bringing the studio's iconic output to Blu-ray with spectacular results. During that time frame we have primarily gotten the films of Hayao Miyazaki with the exception of the later Ghibli entry The Secret World of Arietty, and the mid-90's film Whisper of the Heart. In February Disney Issued Isao Takahata's Pom Poko, Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea, and Hayao Miyazaki's ode to flight Porco Rosso. Now we get to complete Disney’s collection of Ghibli titles, and finally get one of the most popular films in the studio's history the Oscar nominated Spirited Away, and also the Whisper of the Heart spinoff, The Cat Returns.
Spirited Away is the film that introduced me to Hayao Miyazaki when I saw it on DVD in 2003. I had friends as a teenager discuss Princess Mononoke, which I saw in bits and pieces, but never until this film did I see a film of his from start to end, and it made me a fan for life. The film's premise involves a young girl Chihiro who is moving with her parents to a new town. While on their way they take a stop at an abandoned amusement park, that has a food stand that is piled high with all sorts of delicacies. Chihiro's parents eat voraciously, while Chihiro refuses to touch the food, not seeing anyway to pay for the food, and worrying that she will get in trouble. Well it turns out trouble was coming. As her parents scarf down the food, they become pigs, and as night falls spirits descend on the amusement park grounds. In order to by herself time while in the spirit realm she gets herself a job at a bathhouse for spirits run by a wicked witch named Yubaba. Yubaba made her sign away her name to live and work there, and gave her new alias Sen. Her parents remain pigs, and she must work hard, while trying to find a way to free her parents and escape the bathhouse identity intact.
Honestly, that is streamlining the film's plot to it's very essence. There is a lot to Spirited Away from the script to the screen. The film can easily be seen as Miyazaki's own version of Alice in Wonderland with Chihiro/Sen taking the place of the Alice character and exploring the spirit realm. The film deals in themes that have been prevalent from Miyazaki's work from the very beginning such as flight with the character of Haku shifting from a boy to a flying dragon, and environmental themes such as a polluted river spirit attending the bathhouse.
The film as to be expected is gorgeously animated, and filled with wonderful details. The story keeps a nice steady pace, and is never boring, keeping things both exciting and enchanting at all times. It is one of, if not the most popular film from director Hayao Miyazaki for good reason, and may be the only film of his to compete with his own My Neighbor Totoro.
My all time favorite film by Studio Ghibli is the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart directed by Kondo Yoshifumi. It's a simple, but sweet tale of a young girl coming of age in Tokyo. One of the main plot points of the story involved the main character writing a story about "The Baron" a statue of a cat found in her friend's Grandfather's antique shop. During the course of the film we would see the Baron in sequences that were from her imagination’s point of view. The character though small in the film, was deemed popular enough by Ghibli to get it's own feature, and in 2002 after a 3 year production The Cat Returns was released.
When the Cat Returns was released by Disney on DVD, I heard lots of people call the film things like lesser Ghibli, and just a lighthearted simple film. However, being obsessed I had to see it, and having kids doubly so. Watching the film I found it quite an enchanting fun time, and no it's not one of the studio's best efforts, but it was still better than many of the children's films released by other studios at the same time. It just so happens that Ghibli was it's own worst competition, with that being it has gotten plenty of rewatches in my house, and will continue to do so.
The film follows a teenage girl named Haru, she is busy with school and her lacrosse team. One day while walking to school she sees a cat crossing the road, and a truck heading straight for it. She risks her own life, and using her lacrosse stick swoops the cat out of harms way. As it turns out the cat was the Prince of Cats, and saving his life causes her to rewarded by the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Cats. Starting the next day, she is given (mostly)cat-centric reward such as mice, and catnip, when she states her displeasure with the gifts, she is offered the Prince's hand in marriage, and a permanent home in the Kingdom of Cats. Unfortunately, she wants no such thing, and wants help to get out of it.
Fortunately, a friendly mysterious voice aids her, and tells her that the Cat Bureau will aid her. She finds the cat bureau with the help of a fat cat, Muta (later found out to be Cat Kingdom renegade Renaldo Moon), and enlists the help of Muta and the Cat Baron. Unfortunately, she and Muta are kidnapped and taken to the cat kingdom. The Baron and Toto, a crow who befriends The Baron must head into the Kingdom to begin the process of freeing Haru from the Cat Kingdom.
The film runs a short 75 minutes, and so never really has time to slow down. The film quickly establishes the character of Haru, the type of person she is, and the life she leads, and then immediately throws her headfirst into the plot regarding saving the cat, and finding herself trying to avoid their world, or escape from it. The film is a bit more rough than Miyazaki's films, but still has that trademark Ghibli charm to it, and the film is cute and charming enough to make it enchanting family fare.
The transfer for Spirited Away has been presented by Disney in a 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The Cat Returns is also presented in a 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The great thing about the Disney/Ghibli releases compared to the Disney Feature Animation releases is that you are essentially guaranteed a natural transfer that depicts the film as it should be reproduced in high definition. That means no digital tinkering, no grain scrubbing that removes detail, just a nice scan, color correction, and whatever they have to do to realize Ghibli's vision on this format. So Spirited Away has excellent colors, deep blacks, and fine detail all around. Cat Returns is is bit more rough in the animation department, and the Blu-ray brings that out, also the film is a bit more soft than Spirited Away. That being said there is also excellent detail and colors throughout.
There are 2 audio options on each a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track in both English and Japanese. I alternated both for the sake of review, and found that both were quite excellent with dialogue, score, and effects coming through spectacularly. As far as extras are concerned both films contain Behind the Microphone segments with their North American voice casts, both have their complete storyboards, and include trailers and TV spots. Spirited Away includes an intro by John Lasseter, a documentary on the art hosted by Jason Marsden, and a TV documentary on the making of the film made by Nippon. The Cat Returns exclusively features a 34 minute making of segment.
The Cat Returns is a fun family film from Ghibli, while Spirited Away could be considered one of the first truly amazing animated films of the 21st century, if not one of the all-time greatest. The Blu-ray's look and sound fantastic, and the extras though ported over are nice. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.