Abandoned cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is introduced to the ‘Jellicle’ tribe and the promise of new life upon ascension to the ‘Heaviside Layer’.
One of the weird joys of film is when a production like Cats comes out. We get them every now and again – films with a series of strange decisions and erroneous conceptions that it is a dark miracle the final product came to be. I thought we were done for the decade, with disasterpieces like Gods of Egypt (Egyptian Gerard Butler), Nine Lives (Kevin Spacey turns into a cat), The Happytime Murders (Melissa McCarthy and not-Muppets fight crime), or Movie 43 (featuring Hugh Jackman with testicles on his chin as a central joke). Alas, to round the decade out we are treated with Cats, one of those blue-moon-movies that seems to display so many sequentially baffling production decisions that it makes you stop and consider just how many pounds of cocaine must pass through the long process of finalising a film. It’s amazing this movie exists. It’s equally as amazing that it’s actually not as ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ as one would hope. In fact, it’s actually – weirdly – a bit dull.
For me, this all comes back to director Tom Hooper. Known for successes like The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, Hooper’s most expressionistic visual tendencies are twofold: he frequently goes very close up to his actors’ faces, or he isolates them at the extreme left or extreme right of the frame. Neither of these can work for Cats – the CGI applied to each of the actors’ face negates the natural emotive detail of the close-up, and the constant ensemble means that putting one actor on the far left or right of a frame has absolutely no place here. Rather than play with other, more wild camera movements and framing techniques that one could expect from such a wacky adaptation though, Hooper doesn’t really do much of anything at all. Instead, watching Cats’ feels exactly like you’re seeing the stage it was filmed on: a big, green, blocky room. Without the live dynamism granted by the theatre stage, where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original production benefits, the film adaptation moves exactly like watching a video-game cutscene where actors wearing motion capture suits bounce around a soundstage, interacting with objects that will be CG’d in later. In retrospect, Cats is simply not the right project for the often grounded Hooper, and is sorely missing the energy of a more fitting director like Baz Luhrmann. That Luhrmann’s adaptations of tamer material like Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby are infinitely more lively and fun is a testament to how paradoxically bland Cats is. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but the verve of Moulin Rouge would have fit the equally polarising material of Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
Instead, Hooper’s greatest risk is in how he chose to dress his actors, the most disastrously destructive aspect of the film. This is the area that I simply cannot fathom how it made it through so many stages of production. The film already has to contend with the fact that, as a movie, it lacks the excitement of watching actors perform live on stage. So to clad the cast in CGI fur and clothing does nothing more than strip them of their reality further. Forget the absence of a coherent plot, forget the nebulous dialogue, forget the dull cinematography – if we could at least enjoy the actions of the professional dancers and their choreography, there would be more to enjoy. But with every single performer layered in a poorly rendered, woefully unfinished looking CGI bodysuit, everyone moves with a rubbery simulation of real dancing, while their faces awkwardly float on their heads. Recently, it was discovered that Cats was launched with unfinished CGI, with a now infamous screenshot of Dame Judi Dench’s human, wedding-ring adorned hand poking from beneath a cat-fur sleeve. Much like a video game, Universal is now sending out a ‘patched’ version of the film with updated effects to cinemas. I am delighted to say I saw the original cut; I saw many a moment with the Dame’s human hand, and I can confidently say that even with Universal’s apparent new fixes, the core issue with ‘costuming’ the actors like this remains the same. Their movements will still look rubbery and fake and their environment will still seem blocky and synthetic. I am told that, in the theatre world, Cats succeeds solely as a display of engaging dancing and costumes, and the film adaptation drops the ball on both of these things so tremendously it makes it utterly worthless. Like the stage play, none of the songs are especially great, a few are a bit catchy, but without the main draw of the other elements, the dull thud of Cats’ production is amplified.
Quite like Taylor Swift’s English accent as the cat Bombalurina, Cats isn’t the most offensive experience you might expect but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. At most, its embarrassingly funny to watch Jennifer Hudson sing ‘Memory’ as a CGI cat-person while (human or computer animated?) snot hangs insistently from her nose. There’s also a tap dancing sequence that ends with the tap-dancing cat spinning into the air then exploding into dust that had me in hysterics. For the rest of it though, Cats is neither so-bad-it’s-good nor is it so over-the-top it works in its own strange way. The most interesting thing to come out of Cats is that Jason Derulo recently said he sees it as high art, and that’s a memory to cherish in itself.
Author: Tom, Chelsea store