I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to say it over the course of this year, but…WHAT ON EARTH WAS THIS?!?
I needed something like this to shock me out of the doldrums brought on by the last three books I reviewed, but Catnapped! is so strange…so potent…I really don’t know what to make of it!
On the surface it seems simple enough. A Japanese animated film about a human brother and sister whose dog is kidnapped and taken to the magical kingdom of cats, prompting the human siblings to embark on a quest to rescue their dog. Fantastic? Certainly. Ludicrous? Unquestionably. But simple nonetheless. And as it straddles the genres of comedy, fantasy, action-adventure and children’s media, the fantastic and ludicrous premise is actually part of its appeal.
Yet somehow this little-known mid-1990s Japanese children’s film manages to be one of the strangest, most baffling films I have ever encountered. And despite its bright animation and cheery tone, this film also touches on one or two disturbingly dark topics. But for now I should probably focus on…
Toriyasu and his little sister, Meeko, are average Japanese children living an idyllic life in modern, suburban Japan. Unfortunately their pet dog, Papadoll, has been missing for over a week, and while little Meeko is frantic and insists it was an alien abduction Toriyasu dismisses both that possibility and her concern over the dog’s fate. Toriyasu, it seems, cares neither for the dog nor for his sister’s talk of aliens. Meeko later spots a suspicious-looking cat in human-style clothing slipping into an alley as she and her brother walk to school, but her brother dismisses this as well. That night three feline scientists sneak into Toriyasu and Meeko’s bedroom while the children sleep and attempt to take Toriyasu with them; their attempts to lift the much larger and heavier Toriyasu (still sleeping) fail and they wind up waking little Meeko. Meeko offers to help them if they will let her join their mission, the feline scientists agree, and she manages to convince the half-asleep Toriyasu to get dressed and enter the cats’ flying machine – which initially resembles a flying saucer but upon deployment actually resemble a giant smiling cat balloon. The felines take the children through a portal hidden at the bottom of a lake to their magical kingdom known as “Banipal Witt,” a zany land resting upon the uppermost branches of a tree which in turn rests upon the back of a giant, multi-headed cat. Said cat is slumbering and the kingdom’s inhabitants do their level best to keep it that way lest their kingdom be destroyed. Time operates differently in this cat-kingdom, with three Earth minutes equating to one day in Banipal Witt, and the magical sunshine of the cat-kingdom turns both Toriyasu and Meeko into anthropomorphic kittens the moment they step out of the cat-craft; the cat scientists, on the other hand, are transformed into anthropomorphic felines roughly approximate to humans in height and build.
Thus begins Toriyasu and Meeko’s remarkable adventure in which they discover much about the kingdom of the cats, about the fate of their dog, and about their own human natures.
The problem with this sort of film is that it is much richer and much denser than its running time and audience would usually suggest. The film itself is only about 76 minutes and all of the information I have given you above honestly took less than 20 minutes to establish! The rest of the film is a nonstop, madcap adventure full of gorgeous visuals, captivating characters, and lovely music. Even the opening credits sequence is a visual and auditory masterpiece!
This is a whimsical, colourful film which also manages to be surprisingly deep. The characters are multilayered and diverse; there are hints throughout at the complex and intricate workings of the magical cat-kingdom; the final conflict is a magnificent, soaring sequence; and while the heroes can be irritating or even hateful at times, the villains can be sympathetic in their ways. There are no paper-thin premises or motivations.
The film also approaches a number of powerful, meaningful topics, two of which are remarkably disturbing in nature. Suffice to say, this film deals with issues of grief and abuse, abandonment and isolation, which not everyone will be ready to face and which some children may not be able to process. It makes a powerful argument against spoiling children or tolerating their tantrums, and it also makes a clear statement against animal abuse.
Honestly, though I am a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, I find this film more exciting, more engaging and more emotionally complex than most of his work. Even his magnum (feline) opus The Cat Returns pales in comparison to Catnapped!, which surprised me greatly. Especially considering the first of my complaints about this film…
Catnapped! is inexplicably hard to get ahold of, at least in the West. The DVD itself is out of print and very difficult to find – even on eBay it rarely sells for less than $75 American. You can find both the dubbed and subtitled versions on sites like Youtube, certainly, but they are usually chopped up into bite-sized chunks or recorded so poorly that they’re almost unwatchable. I suppose it’s Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli’s brand-recognition alone that keeps The Cat Returns better known than this film – and may also explain why this is out of print and The Cat Returns is little more than click on Amazon.com away.
Also: more zoophilia. A relationship develops between Toriyasu and ChuChu (a female cat freedom fighter with a tragic connection to one of the villains) which I found somewhat unsettling.
Yes, they are both anthropomorphic felines while on Banipal Witt, but the moment he returns to Earth he is a human again while Earth’s sun transforms her into a more traditional cat (albeit one who can speak and operate machinery). Also, for the duration of the film I got the impression that ChuChu was at least a decade older than Toriyasu, who doesn’t even seem to have begun puberty – meaning the affectionate and sexually-charge lick she gives him at the end of the film possessed an additional layer of “wrong-ness.”
This film is colourful. This film is dark.
This film is a comedy. This film is a tragedy.
This film is insane. And I loved it!
 As if we’d allow dogs into our magical kingdom! All entrances to the real kingdom have elaborate safeguards in place to prevent that very eventuality.