I saw a touring production of ‘Cats’ while I was abroad in 2014 and I have to say that I didn’t like the musical back then already. It’s not really a play as much as it is a revue, a very loose narrative about a group of cats called Jellicle cats and the annual Jellicle ball where one cat is chosen to have a new life, a life they’ve always wanted and dreamed. The whole play is about how each cat introduces themselves to the audience before their wise leader Old Deuteronomy makes a “Jellicle Choice” and chooses which cat gets to live again.
There is no real story or conflict, except for one cat, called Macavity, who happens to be a criminal, tries to become the Jellicle Choice.
In adapting this musical into a film, director Tom Hooper pulls out all the stops to try and create a spectacle of CGI and set design, fills his cast with big names in film (Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba), music (Jason Derullo and Taylor Swift), and ballet (Francesca Hayward and Steven McRae), with big orchestration and plenty of dance numbers but without the framework of a story, the film adaptation of ‘Cats’ becomes a strange mess.
Even if I didn’t like the musical, ‘Cats’ is still considered one of the most successful shows on Broadway and the West End and is the fourth longest-running show in both areas. It’s a musical extravaganza of high-energy dancing and if you like the whimsical, often nonsensical but catchy lyrics, you could have a good time.
But what makes the show work is that the cats in the stage version of ‘Cats’ take notice of the audience, which prompts them to introduce themselves. They sing and dance to the audience before Old Deuteronomy makes the Jellicle Choice.
Without that aspect, Hooper and his co-screenwriter Lee Hall turns one of the characters, Victoria, into an abandoned cat and everyone then introduces themselves to her. So the whole film functions as merely as characters explaining themselves to Victoria and Victoria wanting to become a part of these Jellicle cats.
With this narrative device in play, it feels strange that these cats would be so open to sharing themselves with a complete stranger and since the writing does not go too far from the original musical, we don’t really understand how Old Deuteronomy makes her Jellicle Choice. Add to that Macavity and his plan to kidnap all the other contestants so he would be the only choice for Old Deuteronomy to make, doesn’t create enough stakes for the film to be really engaging.
What makes it ever harder to take in this vast information dump of characters is the CGI interpretation of these cats. The actors and dancers playing the cats are digitally covered in fur and their body parts are somehow changed to make them look like human cats but because their movements are human-like with feline flourishes, it looks and feels off. The choreography is a mixture of jazz, ballet, modern, and even some popping and locking that in the more frenetic numbers, they sometimes look more like monkeys than cats.
And the set design is all huge to make the actors look like small cats but the perspective is inconsistent so there are times when they look like they are as large as big dogs and other times as small as mice.
Tom Hooper’s ‘Cats’ is a total mess. In fact, there are times when he brings the camera so close to his actors faces and holds it there while they are singing that we can really take in how strange the CGI makes them look that it becomes disturbing. The image, for me, is quite grotesque.
What makes it even more frustrating is that the actors are all playing it in different frequencies. Judi Dench, as Old Deuteronomy, and Rebel Wilson and Jason Derullo are taking this a little too seriously and become one with the insane visuals adding to the disturbance. Taylor Swift, on the other hand, somehow manages to rise above it; taking her one song moment as her own whimsical music video and she makes it work.
Ian McKellen has an amazing moment playing Gus the Theater Cat and sings a song about his glory days as a theater actor. The song somehow fits with what we know of Ian McKellen and he manages to push through the CGI monstrosity in his face that the song manages to hit a chord.
Francesca Hayward, though, is the real saving grace of this whole movie. As Victoria the White Cat, she enters into the Jellicle Ball with wide-eyed wonder and she’s captivating. That innocence and child-like wonder somehow transforms her cat-like appearance and makes it feel natural. It also helps that she is a marvelous dancer and I could just watch her dance all day.
If it was just two hours of her dancing solo, I’d pay for it.
There’s actually a lot of good choreography but also a lot of bad choreography in equal measure. Any time the camera focuses on Hayward, it’s good. The tap dancing sequence of Steven McRae, another ballet dancer who plays Skimbleshanks, is another gem except it goes on for too long and outstays its welcome. Tom Hooper insists on moving the camera a lot, using really shoddy wire work for some awkward leaps and jumps, and fills up his sequences with too much special effects that every scene becomes an assault of some sort.
All the reviews that came before mine were fair and honest. ‘Cats’ is a mess. I didn’t like the musical before, and I like it even less now.