CATS: Campy Cats, and Kinky Cats, and Creepy Cats

My Verdict | ★★☆☆☆

While most critics have got their claws out and mauled Tom Hooper’s musical hairball, I found Cats to be a perplexing but passable experience. Going in under the barrage of hyperbolically negative review quotes- this film could ‘haunt viewers for a generation’ according to The Observer’s Simran Han- Hooper’s project, while misjudged in certain decisions, isn’t the worst film of last year (or even the last decade).

There’s barely a whisker of a plot: young cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is dumped in the back streets of Victorian London. It so happens that this night is when the ‘Jellicle Ball’ takes place, where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will choose a new life for only one ‘Jellicle’. All type of felines- from theatre cats to railway cats to Rebel Wilson cats- are vying for Deuteronomy’s blessing. However, with his schemes afoot, none will be allowed to overcome the infamous, mercurially-minded Macavity (Idris Elba).

Really, Cats consists of a conveyer-belt of cats introducing their ‘characteristics’ and ‘personalities’ (no song or sequence really moves a story forward), though this weak ‘narrative’ is taken directly from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1980 musical (based in turn on the poems from T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). If they can be blamed for anything, Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall appear unwilling to toy around too much with the original show.

Still, Hooper’s adaptation is totally unashamed of its campiness- wearing its shallow sentimentality and cranked-up melodrama on its furry sleeves. There is a vivid theatricality to Eve Stewart’s set designs and the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble are certainly committed. Some of the star-studded cast are even enjoying themselves: pop-stars Taylor Swift and Jason DeRulo revel in their cameo numbers, while on the other hand, Wilson and James Corden are merely phoning it in. Ian McKellan’s turn as an actor-doing-his-best-cat (grumbly mewling, face rubs, milk bowl licking) is one of the more amusing highlights (even better is an unexpected appearance from Ray Winstone as a tone-deaf, chewed-up bruiser puss- what was he doing in this movie?)

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There is a rather uncomfortable sensuality to these cat performers that I don’t think the director really intended. Scale is jarringly inconsistent and some of the visual effects are plain terrible. It’s often worsened by Hooper’s clinging camera style.

The major flaw is right on the surface. The design decision to hybridise humans and cats through digital effects was totally misguided, leading to a uncannily disturbing presentation (perhaps practical costumes more akin to the stage production would’ve been the better option). These crossbreeds come across as either creepy or kinky or just unfinished. I’m unsure whether it’s their practically naked, fur-skinned figures, suggestively moving tails or writhing, entangled choreography, but there is a rather uncomfortable eroticism to these cat performers that I don’t think was intended (it’s U-rated in the UK- clearly horny cat romps are fun for the whole family!) Their scale is jarringly inconsistent and the visual effects on creatures further down the food chain are terrible (The supporting mice singers and marching cockroaches for Wilson’s number are particularly repulsive). As Jeff Goldblum once said, the filmmakers ‘were so preoccupied on whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they should’.

It’s worsened by Hooper’s clinging camera style, which often pushes so close to the actors that not only do we get to see the performers’ uvulas, but also all the blemishes in the CGI. The persistent snot-tears on the whiskered face of Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is distracting and no doubt her emotionally exhausted performance is a shameless attempt to recall Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ rendition from Hooper’s Les Miserables. Much like that performance, Cats’ famous show-tune ‘Memory’ is overdone, whiney and unsympathetic, regardless of Hudson’s strong vocal talent (probably they used the fifteenth take the actor-singer had given that day).

Cats is sorely lacking in grace, charm or, alternatively, any real instinct to be quirkily subversive. Yet, while you might sit there wondering what ‘Jellicle’ means or what the ‘Heaviside whatever’ is, it’s still possible to hum and tap your foot to the synthesised music. Much like the show itself (I’ve only seen the 1998 direct-to-video version many years ago), this hasn’t converted me to the feline faithful. For those that fall into this category- long-term Cats lovers- this adaptation should be enjoyable. It just fails to endear itself to the rest of us.