Cats (MOVIE REVIEW)
Runtime: 110 Minutes
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: James Cordon, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward
Tom Hooper is one of the strangest filmmakers that’s working in this current industry today. Being a small known director mostly in Television, he jumped to true stardom when he directed the Academy Award winning film, The King’s Speech, and has since went on to the Musical scene with Les Miserables. But what seems really confusing is that after directing a lot of films which are mainly period pieces, for his next venture, he decides to help the adaptation of one of the most abstract musicals of our time. Cats is a Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on a series of poems by T.S Elliot that debuted in the London West End in 1981. It has since became one of the longest running shows in both the West End and Broadway, giving it a huge cult status rarely seen in other theatre productions of its kind. While it would have seemed like a no-brainer to try and adapt this to film, the big challenge that a project of this caliber would have to accomplish is trying to make a story about a gang of cats which take humanoid forms for intense ballet choreography in a way that appears convincing to the average filmgoer. Well, in 2019, the end result is here on the big screen and the results are…………..kind of awful.
For those unfamiliar with the theatre production, Cats follows a gang of Jellicle Cats in the alleys of London. Victoria, a white cat that has recently been abandoned on the streets, meets these cats for the first time and learns of a yearly ritual they conduct called the Jellicle Choice, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy, decides which cat will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside layer and be reborn into a new life. This is a challenge partaken by many cats which is judged based on their respective song numbers, though an evil dastardly cat named Macavity has different plans to win the competition.
The important thing that needs to be discussed with cats, is that unlike most other musicals, there is a significant lack of a compelling narrative that progresses the story in any fashion. The setup is there with how it represents the Jellicle Cat’s desire to ascend to a new life, but rather than use this premise as a starting point to tell any sort of thought provoking plot, it is instead used as a way to introduce the audience to a wide range of quirky characters through a wide variety of creative song and dance numbers. Automatically from the surface, this embodies a SIGNIFICANTLY HUGE PROBLEM that ultimately kills this film’s entire momentum. This film simply has NO STORY. Because the film is so focused on delivering strong song numbers rather than desiring to tell a compelling story, there’s little motivation or drive to keep the film interesting outside of the stellar choreography. It also means that the film has such a monotonous and repetitive pace too since this means that most of the runtime until the final act is spent on song numbers introducing all of these different Jellicle Cats who believe that they hold the title to be the Jellicle choice. Though using songs to introduce these characters into the story isn’t a particularly bad idea, it’s the stale repetition of it all that makes much of Cats a surprisingly huge bore. It also means that there is so little time spent to get to know much of these cats outside of their stereotypical personalities and this becomes an especially huge problem with the character Grizabella, played by Jennifer Hudson, since her character and arc is such a significantly important part of Cats and its legacy.
But aside from the repetition of the story, the elephant in the room might as well also be discussed in regards to the look of the film; in particular, the designs of the cats. The film, deviating from the theatre production in this regard, uses a mixture of Motion Capture and Digital Fur Technology to turn the huge ensemble cast of the film into the cats seen in the film. It’s pretty hard to deny given the online outcry that this decision was probably for the worst. The charm of Cats in the theatre were the costumes and make up which helped to create a decent illusion to the audience that these are indeed cats but still able to pull off some amazing ballet dances as a way of compensation. Here, where they morph both the humanoid and cat features so extensively to the point where they look like weird hybrids, this is where the problems start to arise. The cat designs in this film are so undeniably creepy, giving off such an unnerving uncanny valley feel that seems straight out of a B-movie horror from David Cronenberg. It’s really unsettling and if anything, it makes some of the choreography in the film less significant because of how overtly distracting the cats are just based on their creepiness.
And all of this is a legitimate shame, because despite being the disaster it unfortunately became, so much passion and effort came onto the screen in many ways that the filmmaking team should be given their commandments. In terms of the Production Design, what the team here was able to do by building many elaborate sets to make standard London streets and households larger than life to create the illusion of a cat’s perspective is something quite admirable. It’s a nice film to look at aside from the nightmarish cat designs, with gorgeous cinematography that takes advantage of a wide range of harsh nightly colours and swooping handhelds that Tom Hooper has always been known for, and the choreography is very solid with the dancers clearly demonstrating massive talent even if the spectacle of it all makes it less significant than it should be. But the biggest issue with the technical aspects really does come down to the CGI effects. The cats and their creepy designs have already been stressed about enough, but when the film doesn’t use any sets and uses Green Screen to replicate the West End of London, some of the compositing can look pretty dreadful and there are areas where you can tell some shots might not be finished just for this to reach a Christmas deadline. The effects do kill a lot of essence that the film could have achieved, which feels especially sad when you can tell much of the cast are really giving it their all to make this work. Much of the cast like James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba all look like they were having the time of their lives making this, so it only feels all the more depressing that it feels wasted on such a shallow and unworthy experience.
Cats is a crucial example of how there are some intellectual properties out there that maybe aren’t cut out for the big screen. The theatre production is so fundamentally abstract in comparison to other musicals out there that adapting it for cinema would mean changing so much that many fans would find unsatisfying. But because the film has such a huge lack of narrative focus or character death to the point where it can sometimes feel boring, the poor effects, unintentional use of uncanny valley and the well performed if quite forgettable songs only make it one of the weaker films to come out in 2019. Tom Hooper definitely has his haters, but he’s made some great stuff with The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, so seeing him fall this low is saddening, because he is capable of so much more. No hate should ever come to any of the filmmaking team or the cast since they all did a wonderful job trying to adapt this classic musical for a new generation. It’s just that the overall execution and lack of translation between mediums has ultimately killed any chance that it had to truly be as strong as it might have been. But regardless of what has happened, if you are looking for a film where the story isn’t a focus and just want to see a decent variety of entertaining song and dance sequences, there should be enough to fulfil for 2 hours. But if you want an actual FILM to come out of this, you are better off looking outside of the litter tray on this one.
FINAL RATING: 3/10 (BAD)
The Production and Set Design
The Cheerful Performances
The AWFUL Effects
The Creepy Cat Designs
Inconsistent Tone and Pacing
Very Little Story to Find Engaging