Principal Cast : Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Edris Elba, Jannifer Hudson, Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Mette Towley, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Maoimh Morgan, Ray Winstone, Les Twins, Jaih Betote, Jonadette Carpio, Daniela Norman, Bluey Robinson, Freya Rowley.
Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
The legends were true: Cats, a film directed by a man who has won Academy Awards, starring a virtual orgy of on-screen talent of significance, and based on the record-setting long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, is total and utter shit. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest it’s unwatchable, because it’s the exact kind of film the phrase “hate-watching” was invented to describe, but this effort from Tom Hooper is a wretched turd at its absolute finest. The film is pretty much a direct stage-to-screen adaptation from what I can tell – I’ve never seen the stage production in any form – and let me tell you, the transition from Broadway to the Big Screen leaves a lot to be desired. Oh, there’s aspects of this film that are delightful in some ways, but stepping back and viewing the entire thing as a complete package, you have to be asking yourself: what were they thinking?
After being dumped by her owner on the dusky, neon infused streets of London, a young white cat, Victoria (professional ballerina turned actress Francesca Hayward) finds herself introduced to a gang of alleycats calling themselves “Jellicles”, who go about introducing themselves in a variety of songs and locations. Chief among them is Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the matriarch of the Jellicle pack, aided by Rum Tum Tugger (singer Jason Derulo, proving why he’s only a singer), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, who sticks out like a busted finger here), the magical Mr Mestoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and the overweight Bustopher Jones (James Corden); they and others all take part in the Jellicle Ball, in which one of them is chosen to ascend to something called the Heaviside Layer (I assume it’s like cat heaven or something), an idea which usurper McCavity (Idris Elba) desires for himself.
On paper, Cats was a winner. A bulging cast of talent, an Oscar-winning team behind the camera, and a renowned and greatly admired musical based loosely on poetry by great American poet TS Eliot; it had the pedigree to be a gargantuan success. It wasn’t. Cats lost huge money for Universal (coming hot on the heels of the studio’s other massive 2019 turkey, Doolittle) for much the same reason: the film was too weird for its own good, a drug-fuelled nightmare tableau hardly helped by Hooper’s indifferent direction and a magnificently impenetrable point. On stage, Cats works because our suspension of disbelief allows us to acknowledge that human performers are assuming the role of the variety of cats depicted. It’s a curtain of theatricality that doesn’t work in film because film is far more literal, and a filmmaker must work particularly hard to draw us into any kind of fantastical world. Bazz Lurhmann did as much with Moulin Rouge, a film I suggest is far closer to the aspirations of Cats in terms of presenting a heightened reality to an audience. Cats, however, delivers its fantastical world without contextualising it for the viewer, leaving a lot of the on-screen work to be done by the songs and performers who, for the most part, look confused as to what they’re doing there.
Anyone who knows the story of Cats will find the film works a lot better than those of us, such as myself, who aren’t familiar with the plot. I admit to a level of confusion as to what I was expecting, because for a film in which there’s virtually zero plot, a half-assed villain (no fault of Idris Elba, mind you) and characters both easily identifiable and utterly indiscernible, Hooper’s direction and creative choices left me baffled. The decision to go the humans-as-cats route via special effects (CG which ranges from exquisite to downright hilariously bad) doesn’t work at all, no matter how much you squint to imagine James F-ing Corden as a portly aristocat feline, and the laughable dialogue and often deranged vocals from a largely non-singing cast will make you cringe rather than gasp with appreciation. Almost every creative choice made with Cats hinges upon us suspending our disbelief and recognising people performing as cats works, and the film fails utterly to accomplish that. I spent more time laughing at the screen than engaging with the characters.
For a film so reliant on special effects, you’d think they’d have spent more time getting that right. The film debuted in global cinemas in what was touted as an unfinished form, with many visual effects completed and uploaded to the cinemas after release day, and the home release offered here gives us a glimpse at the off-key uncanny valley effect in full flight. It appears a lot of the fur effects for the characters move independently of the characters themselves, particularly around the faces, which forms a real pattern of disassociation that rips you right out of the film. The unreality of the film isn’t aided by poor visual effects, and Cats, for all its other problems, has plenty of shite visual effects. If they wanted to make it more believable (I honestly cannot believe I just wrote that) maybe they should have taken a leaf out of Jim Carrey or Mike Meyers’ playbook and used practical prosthetic effects rather than ropey digital ones. At least The Grinch and The Cat In The Hat hold up for grounding their characters in a cinematic truth, despite each film having its detractors.
Working tirelessly in Cats‘ favour is is sparkling production design, which in most aspects is flawless. The oversized set design and cinematography is wonderfully realised on the big-screen, very much dwarfing the characters in their London-based narrative and forming a spectacular backdrop on which to attempt to mesmerise the audience; we’re mesmerised all right, only not in the way it was intended. Christopher Ross’ photography is evocative and easily the film’s chief asset, even moreso than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s renowned themes if you can believe it, and he handles the theatricality of the story in its visual terms with a degree of proficiency I wish had carried over into Tom Hooper’s direction. Hooper, who cut his teeth on the London’s aesthetic with The King’s Speech, and who went all French with Les Miserables, and turned in a solid Danish setpiece with The Danish Girl, fumbles the ball badly with Cats, a garbled, hyperkinetic attempt to bring the stage show to life without considering what does and does not work for the screen. A bunch of dancing cockroaches and horrendously weird human mice do not give the film a sense of zany wonderment, they give it a sense of egregiously bizarre missteps that cast the film into a miasma of hysterical giggles and finger pointing.
Cats is a debacle of disastrous proportions. It’s a spectacular misfire, a career-ruining clusterfuck for almost all involved. The intent was fine, sure, but the decisions made here before the cameras even rolled are obviously terrible and I’m surprised nobody at a studio level pulled the pin once the first dailies started to roll in. The production’s prestige is identifiable to all in the overblown performances (Jennifer Hudson is a standout for giving a heartbreaking performance of “Memories” despite the digital clown-car work around her) and hyperventilating camerawork, but Cats’ critical failure is making the mistake of assuming people wanted to see the stage show brought to weird, esoteric life in so confoundingly tone-deaf a manner as this. It’s the kind of film you watch to hate, to laugh at, to be hypnotised by just how awful it all is, not the kind of film you sit down to enjoy repeatedly.