Consider the first few minutes of Cat Returns. After a couple of opening shots, the film introduces the heroine, Haru, a preteen girl living in a suburban home with her mother. Her alarm fails to wake her up in time for school, and her mother calls to her from the foyer of the house. From the overhead shot, we see five pairs of shoes, a couple umbrellas, and a cheap-looking throw rug; in a subsequent shot, we see the mother's neatly ordered bookshelves, which line the small den next to the kitchen. These images of middle-class domesticity are comforting in their familiarity, and the muted colors and department store decor convey an authenticity that many live-action films lack.
This approach is comparable to that of French director Jacques Rivette, whose unique movie fantasies (like Celine and Julie Go Boating and The Gang of Four) gradually enter into dream narratives from starting points of heightened mundanity. The first major set piece of The Cat Returns, which occurs about ten minutes in, feels like a Rivettean fantasy in miniature. Haru awakens in the middle of the night to a sound coming from the end of her street. We see a master shot of the street: a few orbs of blue light hover in the distance, recalling the modest lamp hanging over Haru's dinner table in the previous scene. A few quick shots present house cats meowing at the strange signal and running off their porches to inspect it; in a moment, Haru goes to her window to inspect it as well.
It's a masterful succession of images, tickling the viewer's curiosity with the characters' curiosity. The fantasy emerges little by little—through hesitant, feline steps, if you will—until the floodgates open. At exactly ten minutes into the film, we're treated to the first grand triumph of imagination: a procession of cats walking on their hind legs, overseen by the Cat King, who's come to invite Haru to the Kingdom of Cats. The movie's fantasy feels earned.