Cats has always been a bizarre musical. In spite of the insanely catchy music, explaining the premise to the ignorant is something of a task. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, has a surreal plot. The stage show, and therefore the film, follow this narrative: Once a year the Jellicle tribe of cats gather and sing songs about one another in order to be picked as the Jellicle choice and go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. There’s horny cats, quiet cats, magicial cats, villain cats, and their leaders. It’s…interesting…to say the least.
As with most things, there was bound to be a cinematic adaptation. Tom Hooper, the Academy Award winning director who also gave us the Les Miserable adaptation has taken the wheel here. And, honestly, if we’re going to continue the metaphor, the journey he takes us on is full of pot-holes, speed bumps, crashes, and he hasn’t even finished yet (and we’re pretty sure he’s drunk.)
There has been a lot mentioned about the weird visuals of Cats which, to put it frankly, are heinous. An abomination combination of feline and human features, the cats patter around the screen with sculpted pecs and arses covered in velour and fur. There’s fingers and toes yet fluff and whiskers making the entire character design utterly distracting. That’s not even the worst part – mice have children’s faces and cockroaches, good grief, also look like humans. Hooper certainly makes some choices here.
The film stars many famous faces in roles which shapes the film for better or for worse. Sure, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are steadfast professionals who meow and totter around as actual old cats. But including two of the most irritating comedy actors – Rebel Wilson and James Corden – dampens the festivities. Jason Derulo makes a good Rum Tum Tugger but even his appearance is weird.
The songs are decent (and they were always going to be.) Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Memories is certainly a highlight of a film but that’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? You take an Oscar-winning singer, who won for her powerful delivery of a famous song in yet another musical adaption, and give her one of stage’s most acclaimed moments, then you are bound to bristle with emotion. You may not have snot on your nose as Hudson does but you’ll have a tear in your eye.
It’s in moments like this, or Skimbleshanks or Mr. Mistoffelees, that there are smidges of magic in the air. It’s just that they are stripped from being purely awe-inspiring because of the artistic choices made. For example, Taylor Swift’s Bombularina is decent enough but she doesn’t exude sultry prowess to master the sexy villainous Macavity number. Having Judi Dench look to the camera to remark on Jellicle Cats doesn’t cause deep postulation on the “themes” but does induce nightmarish visuals (including a focus of her very, extremely human hand.)
There has been a surge of people heading to Cats in order to mock it, gifting Hooper’s film a somewhat cult status as big as The Room or Plan 9 from Outer Space. This feels unearned. Yes, the film is truly a horror of CGI humanoid cats gyrating in front of us or human faced cockroaches being gobbled up by disproportionate felines – images burnt into our skulls forever. Yet this isn’t Cats greatest sin. The film has taken a weird but beloved musical and made it, actually, really dull. If it weren’t for the catchy music, established as good before the movie even began, Cats would be completely lifeless. It doesn’t deserve to be whooped and hollered at. Not yet anyway because Hooper’s lack of charm and sincerity are apparent.
Like Old Deuteronomy turning to Macavity in the film, there’s just no soul in Cats.
Cats is out on DVD, Digital, and Blu-Ray!