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Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriters: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper
Starring: Francesca Haywood, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson, Rebel Wilson, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Ray Winstone
Yikes. My reaction to the initial ten minutes of Cats was visceral…
The film opens with a rich view of the streets of London as a kitten, Victoria (Hayward), is left for dead by her owners. I felt a little ill in my stomach. Not because as an ardent fan of real-life cats I was distressed for Victoria’s fate, but because the slinking, nightmarish CGI-cat people were far worse than I could have ever imagined.
While the set of London’s West End is rather beautiful (even in it’s odd proportions) the strange fur bodies combined with human-like hands and feet, are uncomfortable to say the least. But, having seen the musical “Cats” at the grand age of 9, I told myself to, in the words of Taylor Swift, “shake it off”. This is what the cats looked like on stage, silly. Move on.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 book of children’s poetry, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical was a surprise hit. First premiering on the West End in 1981, it was viewed as weird and fun with an almost universally acknowledged plotless narrative. Even though the show often left critics divided, it earned praise for an original and unorthodox concept as well as its visual choreography. It was also a commercial hit and remains the fourth-longest running show on Broadway.
The stage show’s frail plot line remains the same in Hooper’s adaptation; a tribe of cats who call themselves the “Jellicle Cats” introduce themselves through song and dance. At the Jellicle Ball that evening, the cat patriarch Old Deuteronomy (Dench) is to choose which of the cats is to travel to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn.
While the set of the original show remains the same throughout (a junkyard of oversized items), one of the film’s small delights is that they move through different, richly styled locations (a milk-bar, a neon-lit street, a London townhouse) before ending up in the Egyptian Theatre for the ball. The cats are widely out of proportion with their locations, which is distracting, but partially made up for through the bold and vivid colour palette of their surroundings.
Other redeeming qualities include both Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench’s endearing performances as Gus the Theatre Cat and Old Deuteronomy respectively. McKellen especially throws himself into the role, with a softness and fragility, although I could not help but to wonder how he (a Sir!) had ended up here. Taylor Swift’s brief appearance as Bombalurina is also a highlight, with her belting out the catchy tune “Macavity” in high heels and genuinely seeming thrilled to be involved. Jason Derulo is also surprisingly delightful as scene-stealer Rum Tum Tugger.
Otherwise, the film is nothing sort of a nightmarish ride that couldn’t have ended sooner.
The adaption of this musical was never going to be easy, but the audacious, bawdy style of 2019’s Cats is almost too much to take. The creative choices seem mind-boggling. Some of the cats are wearing shoes, some have human feet. At one point during Jennyanydot’s (Rebel Wilson’s) song, the cats eat cockroaches. Old Deuteronomy wears at fur coat, of seemingly her own fur. Nothing makes sense inside this unearthly universe I will happily never visit again.
The CGI is unfinished, with the cats appearing ungrounded and slightly levitating in many of the large outdoor dance scenes. Dame Judy Dench’s human hands are highly visible in the film’s final scenes. The much-publicized “digital fur-technology” is… disturbing.
The pace is frequently too slow and the cats lack depth, backstory and any character development. Newcomer Francesca Hayward, who plays the lead Victoria, seems resigned to making one facial expression for the majority of the film. The attempt at humour falls flat. Yet, if we can learn anything from Cats, it’s that we should take pleasure in art forms separately. Film and stage have different goals, and do not need to be integrated. If studios can take anything away from this cat-tastophic film, it is that there should be, and is, space for both mediums to be enjoyed.