Yes, yes, I am six months late to this party, and yes this is a 2019 film, released in Ireland ten days shy of the New Year. But I feel like its near-release to 2020 and the extraordinary nature of the movie means that I can make an exception. And, not to spoil my opinions, it isn’t going to be featuring in any Top 10 of mine, and no award categories either, so what’s the harm? I felt like I had to, at some point, give Cats a look and offer some opinions.
Doing it now is apropos, what with the lockdown reducing the number of new releases significantly and the distance from the original furor. The latter may allow for a cooler, calmer appraisal, away from the cavalcade of memes that accompanied the film’s release late last year. When I first heard that Cats was getting a feature adaptation, I was pretty excited, especially when I saw the cast and the director. Hooper was at the helm of my 2013 #1 Les Miserables, the principals included numerous luminaries of stage, screen and microphone, and this is Cats: one of the most famous musicals ever conceived, with plenty of opportunity for spectacular visual story-telling and equally spectacular singing. The end result has already received its judgement from history, but was it an unfair one, or is Cats every bit the disaster it has been painted as?
It is the night of the Jellicle Ball, when Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) shall choose one of the Jellicle Cats to travel to the Heaviside Layer and be re-born into a new life. The candidates are many: roach trainer Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson); flirtatious tom Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo); ultimate fat cat Bustopher Jones (James Corden); theatre legend Gus (Ian McKellan), railway tapper Skimbleshanks (Stevan McRae) and mournful outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). While newcomer Victoria (Francesca Hayward) takes in the scene, the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), with the help of associate Bomburlina (Taylor Swift), schemes to steal the Jellicle Choice for himself.
It is important that I maintain my usual standards in regards Cats, so in that regard I’m going to stick with my initial thoughts on story, character and performance, before we get into the very pertinent issue of the visuals. In the context of story, character and performance, then Tom Hooper’s Cats must be considered an excellent adaptation of the stage musical. And I mean that sincerely.
Cats was always going to be a difficult thing to replicate on he big screen. It is common for some to be turned off by the musical because it largely eschews a traditional structure, and is something to be enjoyed as much for its choreography as for its music and narrative. That narrative is a very slender thing at the end of the day, a literal catwalk of prospective moggies all looking for a vaguely defined shot at a new life, with little in the way of background or elaboration as to what a “Jellicle” really is or what said new life entails. And all in the service of of what are essentially absurdist nonsense rhymes from the mind of T.S Elliott, featuring cats that train cockroaches to be productive members of society, or are members of gentlemen’s clubs, or make the trains run on time or are master criminals in the mold of Moriarty.
Once you get beyond the shock of realising that this is, by and large, not a traditional story, you have to settle in to what Cats is, which is a series of vignettes essentially. Some of these are good – the Skimbleshanks tap-dancing section springs to mind – some of them are a bit too strange for their own good – like Jennyanydots and her coordinated mice and roaches (as an aside, is Rebel Wilson ever going to get away from being just a pratfall in human form?) – some are too pared down from the stage to actually make the impact they should – like Gus, who is reduced to a single part of his song – and some are just outright bad, like James Corden’s unwelcome intrusion as a not great Bustopher Jones. The decision to frame things around the audience surrogate that Victoria becomes was actually quite clever, preventing some off-putting breaks of the fourth wall until the very final parts of the film.
Once can’t fault the vibrancy on display, or the choreography of the dancing (especially the Jellicle Ball sequence) or even the singing performances, which are nearly all exceptional. There’s a variety in the songs that keeps the audience on their toes, from the poppy, to the mournful, to the dirge-like. Props especially have to go to Jennifer Hudson, with her Grizabella essentially just there to sing the various snippets of the show’s stand-out number, and she does so with gusto.
But Hooper does make a few changes, and in-so-doing attempts to meld an actual story onto all of the fantastical nonsense occurring. In this he has to rely a lot on Idris Elba’s Macavity, who is a fun, slightly camp but always commanding villain. He appears a bit more here than he does on stage, with his plot to steal the Jellicle Choice outlined a bit more explicitly, in many ways placed above the more traditional guiding point of the story in Grizabella’s laments. In combination with his apparent magic powers, we get a fun narrative-backbone of him making all the other candidates literally disappear, and that’s before Taylor Swift joins the party as a catnip throwing femme fatale at Macavity’s side.
It’s paced pretty well for the most part. Notwithstanding the way that the Gus character gets a bit gutted, Hooper cuts out some stuff that is especially irrelevant and then adds the quite lovely “Beautiful Ghosts” for Victoria to tie her to Grizabella (or rather Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the creators of the song, do). A sort of unstated love triangle between Victoria, Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and Munkustrap (a frequently front-and-centre Robert Fairchild) is also engaging enough, and will certainly help you ignore the way that many of the show’s songs often amount to the same lines repeated over and over (you will get tired of hearing the words “Oh! Well, I never! Was there ever a cat so clever as Magical Mr. Mistoffelees?”).
From a production stand-point, the physical sets that have been created here, from houses seen from the perspective of cats, to abandoned theatres, to Rum Tum Tugger’s milk bar all look very cool and form a decent backdrop to the action when employed. The CGI locations aren’t anywhere near as good unfortunately, perhaps owing to the focus elsewhere on that front, or maybe they are just designed for a big-screen. It’s a forgivable lapse, especially when you audience’s eyes and ears will be mostly dedicated to taking in the singing and the dancing which, as stated, in generally top-notch.
However, absolutely none of the above – the strength of the performances, the quality of the singing, the well-structured nature of the adaptation – matters at all. Not one bit. Because nothing can save Cats, not in the form that it has been presented. There is simply no getting beyond the glaring, awful flaw at the very heart of what it is.
It is truly baffling that a film of this high a profile, with this amount of famous cast-members, with this director, actually made it to screens with the characters looking the way that they do. The titular felines are monstrosities of CGI: a bizarre hybrid of cat and man that looks deeply, remarkably, upsetting. The decision to not have the cast just dressed in physical costumes that resemble cats, with appropriate make-up – you know, like the stage musical – would not be considered the craziest thing in the world to do, but the alternative, this computer-driven atrocity, is such a strange thing to prefer that I am at a loss as to understand how the people holding the purse-strings allowed things to get as far as they did.
To get into specifics, the figures that populate Cats have badly-designed fur, waving tails and mannerisms that naturally make one think of felines, but they also have largely human faces, hands and feet, to the extent that some of them are wearing shoes. And, of course, some of them go even further and wear clothes, like Jennyanydots who twice unzips her jacket in a truly disgusting sight, or Macavity, who discards his coat and hat at one point and thus appears to be dancing naked in subsequent scenes. The dichotomy between the human and the animal is so disjointed, so uncomfortable, that it dominates each and every scene. It cannot be ignored, it cannot be dismissed and in so many ways it has to be seen to be believed.
But the design of the characters in really only one part of the story. The other is the physical actions of the principals in many scenes, that add to the impression of a grotesque freak-show. They fact that they walk around like humans for most of the film, only to occasionally HALO jump into the uncanny valley by going on all fours is one thing. The problem with scale is another, with the cats often not really fitting into the well-formed environments properly. No, I mean other things. I speak of watching James Corden lapping his tongue from beneath a bottle. I’m talking about the mice and the cockroaches with children’s faces singing in chorus. I’m calling attention to Idris Elba’s seemingly naked dancing. And I have that vision of Judi Dench scissoring her legs in approval of someone’s song etched into my memory, and it won’t be going anywhere very soon. Part of this may well have been an effort to get beyond the performance handicap that was the layers of bad CGI, though the cats do the absolute best that they can.
But don’t they have to act like cats? You might well ask that, amid reports of the “cat school” the cast attended. But if you think Judi Dench scissoring her legs in the manner described was a good choice, for the moment in the film and for the dignity of that actor, there is an unbridgeable gulf between us. Where the innate sexuality of the movement of actors in leotards on stage may seem strange yet compelling in a familiar way (after all, they are clearly people dressed up), when the actors in question are literal half man/half-cat creatures those same movements become increasingly uncomfortable to view (and let’s not go to the apparent rumours of the already fabled “butthole-cut”). Case in point: Elba and Swift share a dance that is as suggestive as it comes in terms of movements, but when those movements are being done by there fake-furry monsters it’s hard to be entranced.
That kind of stuff must be blamed on the director, and judging from some of the claims that have come out of the production staff, Hooper seems to have taken leave of his senses while directing this, as did the larger studio, that actually issued a Day One Patch to correct problems with the CGI after release. The CGI staff seem to have been at the head of their field going by their other productions after all. One does not wish to go on and on, because all of this has been said before, but it must be stated again at least once more: Cats, on a visual level regards its characters, is a disaster of truly incredible proportions. That alone outs the film into the lowest echelons of big-budget releases.
In many ways that might be its real saving grace. It’s such a strange picture, that is bound to attract interest for many years to come. It’s like that statue of Cristiano Ronaldo or that painting of Jesus that was refurbished: it had the basis of something great and the general form was alright, but in the end there is an unavoidably glaring error in the presentation, an error that draws the eye like a car crash draws rubber-neckers. Cats: great singing, great adherence to the source material with changes where it counts, great ambition to a certain extent. And not a bit of it matters. Cats will go down in history as one of the great CGI failures in film history, a lesson to all future computer animators in what not to do. I will recommend giving it a look, because it is impossible to get across the depth of what went wrong here otherwise, but, generally speaking, this is not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).