Cats came out last week and it’s already lived out its nine lives. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on T.S. Elliot’s wonderfully creative Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, played on Broadway for 18 years despite not being very good. But it was fun in a way this big screen CATastrophe isn’t.
The claws have been out for Cats since the trailer’s release this summer. Audiences hissed at the clip’s “digital fur technology,” which made the cats look like semi-nude humans. But then there was word about reported CGI changes. Maybe the trailer was just test footage? Nope. What you see in the trailer is what you get, and what you get is a bizarre movie that recalls the absurdity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, minus the sexy camp that made that one a classic.
The plot is crazy. An adorable white cat, Victoria (Francesca Howard), is dumped in a London alley by her owners. Unfamiliar with the world outside her cat bed, she looks around curiously like a little kid in a new city. That’s where she meets a group of strays called the “Jellicles.”
The Jellicles dance erotically as they sing of a Jellicle Ball. “The Jellicle Ball?” Victoria asks. It’s a once a year event where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), whose appearance resembles the lion in The Wizard of Oz, finds the courage to choose the kitty that deserves to go to cat heaven.
What comes next is a talent show. Each cat gets the chance to prove their worth by bursting into song for Deuteronomy. This plot device gives the talented cast a chance to share the spotlight, at least. Robbie Fairchild plays the ringleader, Munkustrap. Rebel Wilson is Jennyanydots, a puzzling creature who’s supposed to be funny, but is just cringey. James Corden embodies the other comedic relief character, Bustopher Jones, a dumpster diver who gets fat shamed. Ian McKellen steals the show as Gus the Theater Cat, a has-been actor milking what applause he can still get. Laurie Davidson plays Mr. Mistofeless, a magician who, at one point, literally pulls a cat out of a hat. Jennifer Hudson overacts as Grizabella, the outcast who sings the play’s memorable song, “Memory.” Jason Derulo, who has famously complained about his genitals getting CGI’d out of the film, now probably wishes they CGI’d his break dancer Rum Tug Tugger out entirely.
Despite the purview of the performances, Cats would have worked better as an animated film with a different director. Tom Hooper (Les Miserables,The King’s Speech) is out of his comfort zone here. It’s remarkable how creepy his art-deco sets are, and how all over the place his story becomes.
In 1982, the play was groundbreaking for its sets and sound design. The movie version tries new things as well, but fails. In trying to blend aspects of German Expressionism, pre-code musicals and family friendly entertainment into one confined space, Hooper has created the strangest of worlds. The scale of things is always changing- some cats are the size of mice, while others are the size of trash cans. Some cats wear clothes, others don’t. Even as they dance under neon lights, or prance across the moonlit rooftops, you get the sense that something is off.
Part of that un-easy feeling comes from Mr. Macavity (Idris Elba). He hides in the shadows, ears perked through his fedora, looking for the chance to pounce on the Jellicle Ball contestants. His partner in crime, Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), attacks the Jellicles on a crescent moon, showering them with golden catnip that has the power to kill.
Also sickening is the camerawork. Shot like a music video instead of a musical, the quick cuts and closeups take away from Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography. After months of cat school training, it would have been nice to see the cast dance to Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts” in wide shots instead of closeups.
Don’t blame the stars for the film’s failure, though. They do what they can with the material they are given. Hayward, who dances for the Royal Ballet, is especially light on her paws, even though her Victoria spends the majority of the run time looking confused as she watches the naked cats dance. At least her confusion makes the protagonist relatable.
Cats is one of the few films that actually lives up to the bullying buzz out there. We warn you not to waste your time, but it you must, in L.A. we recommend Alamo Drafthouse’s Cats “Rowdy Screenings” where you can take out your frustrations at the screen and be as feral as a catfight during the entirety of the film. More here.