Movie review: Cats
The critical kicking dished out to the musical fantasy Cats has at times seemed disingenuous and more to do with delivering a stockpiled arsenal of cat-based puns.
Cries that the humanoid felines look nightmarish felt like an easy target for pedants.
Appearing to justify the brickbats is the announcement that an updated version will be distributed with improved effects. Cats is getting a patch.
Frankly, I was okay with the overall look of the cats.
I could even live with the inconsistency regarding clothes, including the one cat (played by Rebel Wilson) who peels off her fur to reveal a sparkly dress and more fur underneath.
I could bear the disregard for proportions so that the same cat can vary from mouse to man-size from scene to scene.
These and more failings would have been more forgivable if it didn’t take itself all so seriously.
And that is Cats’ main failing – the hubris that assumes what works on stage works just as well on screen.
Or indeed, that because the stage musical has lasted so long with barely any plot, the film can do the same.
A run across four decades on Broadway and the West End prove that, right?
It does not help that director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) has – again – gone for a very straightforward approach and you have to wonder if a live recording of the stage show would have been more effective.
On the live stage, an elaborate tap dance routine to emulate the rhythm of a train can be a marvel of skill. On screen, it’s just a shaky leg and some clacking sounds.
Likewise, any dance scenes featuring the cast. Live its a tableau of movement and exertion On screen, it might as well just be discombobulated star jumps.
The average viewer is dumped into the world of Cats, following newly abandoned Victoria (Francesca Hayward).
She is surrounded by many cat people as she is told a cat has three names – and we never find out anything more about that.
From then on, it’s song after song (some staying far beyond their wecome), introducing cat after cat, for no particular reason other than to sing about themselves.
The plot, that only really comes to matter halfway through, is that Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy (a queen among cats, naturally) will choose a cat to go to the Heaviside Layer where they will be reborn into the life they wanted. My thanks to Google for the details I strained to pick up from the viewing.
So then it becomes a singing contest as each cat tells the most tear-worthy sob story – very American Idol/The X Factor – hoping to be chosen.
But Idris Elba’s Macavity, who has magical transportation powers (no reason given), wants the prize for himself.
There's a premise there that's squandered to introduce more cats of no consequence.
The song that most people will know is Memory – and with good reason. It’s the only song here that conveys any emotion. It’s also about the only tune to not mention the word “cat” 80,000 times per verse.
From start to finish, the words "Jellicle cat" are used like it’s a common term. And they say it A LOT, over and over, leaving you bewildered as to whether they’re saying jelly cole, jellico or jellicle. Not that one has more meaning than the other.
And too often, the sound mix is way off, making it hard to work out what’s being sung. Those who read Chinese will have less of an issue thanks to the subtitles. Otherwise, there are times when it’s just unintelligible mouth sounds.
It’s hard to make out names. Robbie Fairchild acts as Victoria’s – and our – guide throughout but we barely get his name. (Turns out it’s Munkustrap. Thanks IMDb).
Back to Memory. When it comes up, it’s so good it damns the rest of the film’s mediocrity.
Jennifer Hudson is Grizabella – a cat shunned by the others – and provides the one moment the film works.
She does not just belt it out, she channels it. She feels it. And we do to. Tears, snot and all. Having heard the tune in variety shows for decades, Hudson is the first singer I have seen give meaning to this song.
It’s a story in itself that sears through the CGI make-up.
Unfortunately, it comes late in the day.
I would hope at least there was some realisation among the cast of, “Oh, THAT’S how we’re meant to do it”.
Once Hudson lets rip, it becomes painfully clear just how flatly the other songs have been performed. Just singing words to a tune.
I’m sure the effects department were thrilled at Hooper’s decision to film handheld, shake and all, then have to stitch the cat skins to the actors.
It’s definitely a problem. There are moments when faces and heads move in different directions. The mice are freakiest of all with the floating children’s faces.
And when there are scenes of magic that require some special effects flair, Hooper shoots in such a basic way, you’d expect such effects from a stage production, not a CGI-slathered movie.
To boil the issues down, that’s where this film has gone wrong. For whatever reason, this is a film of the musical Cats, rather than a movie based on the musical Cats.
More should have been done to make it work for the format, to make the story make more sense.
That said, Tom Hooper may just have created a cult classic. Cats is very close to a must-see movie. Not in a “so good it’s bad” way but just to see how extraordinarily off everything is.