UK | USA 2019
Opening December 25, 2019
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Writing credits: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper
Principal actors: Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Robbie Fairchild, Rebel Wilson
Imagine this fever dream: a cat-like Rebel Wilson unzips herself from her fur suit, steps out of it to reveal a more clothed and bedazzled fur suit, and proceeds to sing a song about the mice and cockroaches she has trained to entertain her. Said mice and cockroaches (with human faces mind you) proceed to dance around the room and Wilson then eats them. That is the level of disturbing absurdness that Cats brings to the table and it is a spectacular disaster.
Much like the popular musical on which it is based, the story follows a bunch of cats (of the largely undefined Jellicle variety) that plan to attend a ball where one will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be a new life. The main cats sing introductory stories of their lives while being threatened by the mysterious and evil cat Macavity (Idris Elba). Yes, the plot is practically non-existent, but it has always been more of a spectacle piece with catchy songs, choreography, and set design than anything else. Unfortunately for the film adaptation, director Tom Hooper has done everything in his power to ruin all that is fun and enjoyable about the musical.
Where the nightmare fuel begins is with the truly odd digital design of the sets and characters. On stage, it is easy enough to imagine the spandex-clad actors as anthropomorphized cats, but in film this was always going to be a challenge. The choice was really to either keep things more symbolic like on the stage or to animate the characters completely. Instead, Hooper decided to go for some weird digital human-cat creature, the result of which ventured so deep into the uncanny valley that it became an abyss from which audience imaginations might never be able to return. Human bodies with cat fur, ears, and tails... it is such a mess and the addition of random shoes and clothes makes the creatures look even worse. The set design also does little for the film, with the scale of objects often completely disproportionate from the cats. Even worse is Hooper’s decision to incorporate CGI into the choreography, transitioning between real and digital dancing often in the midst of a movement. The end result is jarring and diminishes one of the most important aspects of the musical which is the beautiful and difficult choreography. Hooper even managed to mess up the most iconic part of the musical by approving a mix of “Memory” where Jennifer Hudson’s voice is all but covered up by an overly-loud orchestra. At this point it maybe should just be a rule that Hooper should stay away from the genre as a whole because his choices go against everything that makes a movie musical worthwhile.
All of this makes for an objectively terrible film both visually and musically. It is ridiculous and an eyesore and probably should never have been made. Yet exist it does and somehow in its weird and over-the-top way, it still manages to be a heck of a lot of fun once you give into the insanity of it all. This is in no small part due to the exuberance and talent of the entire cast who all seem to be having a great time throughout. Their energy propels everything forward and it is honestly too bad that their collective talents could not have been utilized in a better production.
All of that being said, sometime around the time when the chorus of “Mr. Mistofelees” began its tenth repeat I began to fall deeply in love with this mess of a film. Maybe it had simply broken me by that point, but the fact is the songs are catchy, the cast don’t take it too seriously, and the horrible CGI is just the cherry on top of all of the campiness. Cats may be awful, but rest assured that its cult classic status will not be long in coming. ()