A scatterbrained schoolgirl gets more than she bargained for after rescuing a cat from an onrushing truck in "The Cat Returns." Animated by Hiroyuki Morita -- a protege of Hayao Miyazaki -- story draws more from fairy tales than the eerie transformative productions by Studio Ghibli. Result is catchy entertainment for kids and adults.

A scatterbrained schoolgirl gets more than she bargained for after rescuing a cat from an onrushing truck in “The Cat Returns.” Supple, matter-of-fact tale of two mini-communities inhabited by talking felines with opposing approaches to interacting with humans, is full of narrative surprises, danger and humor. Animated by Hiroyuki Morita — a protege of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) — story draws more from fairy tales and adventures than it does from the eerie transformative productions by Japanese toon factory Studio Ghibli. Result is catchy entertainment for kids and adults, and both dubbed and subtitled versions in Gaul are catnip to summer auds.

High school student Haru, who lives with her equally spacey mom, is always late to school. Walking home with her closest girlfriend, Haru spots a graceful cat as it heads into traffic with a gift-wrapped package between its teeth. Grabbing her friend’s lacrosse stick, Haru dives in front of a truck, scooping up the feline and propelling them both to safety in the nick of time.

Standing on its rear paws, the cat addresses Haru with great poise and, speaking eloquent Japanese, thanks her for saving his life. With a formal bow, he says he must go, but will return to thank her properly. When Haru asks her mother if cats can talk, mom reminds her that when she was a little girl, she shared a box of fish-shaped crackers with a stray cat and reported that they’d had a conversation.

That night, in one of the toon’s most fluidly drawn sequences, a magnificent procession of upright cats pulls up to Haru’s door with their king — a fat cat with a jeweled forehead — in a palanquin, as Secret Service-style bodyguards fend off less sophisticated neighborhood cats.

Haru learns she saved the king’s son, Prince Loon, and is given a scroll promising her immediate happiness. When she later learns the cats intend for her to marry the prince, she panics. But a mysterious voice instructs her to seek out the Bureau of Cats, a charming miniature town to which she is led by Mouta, an intrepid and overfed white feline.

While Haru is older than Chihiro, the heroine of “Spirited Away,” she also finds herself on a mission to discover her own true nature that’s as compelling as it is unplanned. Finale is thrillingly imaginative.

Symphonic-style score, which borrows liberally from Western classical music, neatly reinforces the blend of pure action and emotional discovery.

French-subtitled version abounds in dialogue incorporating “mee-ow” puns.

The Cat Returns

Japan

Production

A Gaumont Buena Vista Intl. release (in France) of a Hayao Miyazaki presentation of a Studio Ghibli production. Produced by Hayao Miyazaki. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita. Screenplay, Reiko Yoshida, based on the work of Aoi Hiragi. In color.

Crew

Editor, Megumi Uchida; music, Yoji Nomi; character creation, Satoko Morikawa; associate producers, Takeyoshi Matsushita, Sanchiro Ujie, Koji Hoshino, Tomoo Miyagawa, Hononori Aihara, Hideyuki Takai. Reviewed at UGC Les Halles, Paris, Aug. 11, 2003. Running time: 75 MIN.

With

Voices: Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Kumiko Okae, Tetsuro Tanba. (Japanese dialogue version)
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