Review: Nightmarish 'Cats' proves that not every musical needs a film adaptation
Courtesy of Universal
Chances are, you have heard about all the negative online chatter surrounding the movie musical “Cats” directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) which is based on the property by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Though I try to give each movie I see a fair shake and go in with zero preconceived notions, I admit the initial “Cats” trailer spooked me (humans playing cats in CGI form. Why?) and I’m here to say the film adaptation is a total nightmare.
I don’t consider myself a “Cats” expert and this was my first experience hearing the musical in its entirety, but one has to wonder how studio executives at Universal Pictures, after watching Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson singing in digital fur and dropping cringeworthy cat puns, thought this was going to work. If the plot wasn’t already bizarre enough - the original musical is based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot (he’s rolling in his grave) - “Cats” makes the unpleasant mistake of drowning an A-list cast in CGI sludge to the point where you can’t look away. You question why the filmmakers didn’t go the more traditional route with makeup and costuming (“Cats” - if anything - is generally known for its lavish costume and makeup design). Instead, the year is 2019 and executives opted for a lousy motion capture performance hybrid that looks like the world’s biggest deep fake. I pray for the career of Idris Elba as I’m not sure how he’s going to recover from this debacle, (His naked feline appearance will forever live in my subconscious).
Still, this is “Cats” and with that you have to remember, well, it’s “Cats” which, narratively, wasn’t all that strong to begin with. Ambitious as he is, Hooper tries to give the scarce material some new life and he sometimes conjures a few redeeming moments (namely casting James Corden and Ian McKellen). Him and production designer Eve Stewart have built a playground that’s ten times the size of its cast as to give the forced perspective his ensemble are the size of roaming felines. The story, as it were, revolves around a Jellicle ritual of sorts where cats in the local tribes are vying to be chosen by an all knowing matriarch Old Deuteronomy (which until now had been played by a male but Hooper has tapped Judi Dench who looks the most normal and sounds good too) to be reborn into a new life on the Heaviside Layer.
Are you still with me?
Fans of “Cats” can attest to how strange and offbeat that sounds, and if Hooper and his creative forces had committed to how weird those ideals were than perhaps “Cats” could have been a so-bad-it’s-good kind of thing. So one by one, a chorus line of bolstering kitties: the grumpy Jennyandots (Rebel Wilson who should find herself in Razzie contention), an egotistical Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), an enlarged Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and the magician cat Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) all sing a tune to help boost their chances of being chosen for rebirth. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson plays the outcast Grizabella and belts the iconic tune “Memory” with gusto but alas, it doesn’t shatter the glass ceiling of what the singer has accomplished in the past with much less.
Newcomer Francesa Hayward (a professional ballet performer) moves and flaunts superbly as Victoria, the character of which Hooper chooses to frame the story around. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”) manages to throw his seasoned players in many different directions and angles, but it never translates well on screen (a sequence where the cats do a strange moon dance is the stuff all great memes are made of). It’s also hard to believe these are supposed to be cats when you can see their human characteristics through the digital effects. Whiskers and all. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but fans of Taylor Swift should be forewarned that the popstar has approximately 10 minutes of screen time, and it’s severely lackluster.
Now is anyone shocked to hear that “Cats” is a well intentioned trainwreck? I doubt it. Except with the pedigree of talent involved some part of me was secretly hoping the studio was holding back their ace. They were not and I’m not sure who a movie like “Cats” is actually for? Imagine taking your grandparents or small child to see “Cats” over Christmas, they’ll literally be mortified. Congratulations to dogs.