When choosing to adapt well known content to a cinematic format, many questions need to be asked. Questions such as ‘How do we make this work on film’? ‘How much should we change’? ‘Who are we making this for’? ‘Can this be even turned into a movie and should we even try’? It’s important to consider these things before pre-production even begins, so that you can make the best possible movie from the tools you’re working with. Usually, just having branded content is enough to get a project greenlit. Thus, those questions aren’t considered and you end up with a highly problematic piece. This isn’t to say that movies like this aren’t made with artistic passion in mind. No filmmaker sets out to make a flawed film, but it does sometimes happen. As is the case with director Tom Hooper’s Cats (2019), an adaptation of the famous stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The ‘story’ of Cats follows a group of cats known as the Jellicles, all getting together one night to sing and dance so they can be chosen for a better life (essentially dying and going to cat heaven which is known as the ‘Heavyside Layer’). We jump from one musical number to the next, where a new cat shows up singing about why they are most deserving of this new life. The various cats played by James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Laurie Davidson and many others. Meanwhile, an evil cat named Macavity (played by Idris Elba) wants this new life for himself and uses magic to kidnap his competitors. He is also helped along by some evil cats, played by Ray Winston and Taylor Swift.
Just by reading that description, you can probably tell there isn’t much of a story or plot here, but rather just a series of musical numbers. To be sure, musical films can and have been incredibly engrossing, like the excellent Rocketman (2019) or Chicago (2002). The issue is not with the genre, but rather how it’s handled. Hooper seems to be gravitating towards musicals with stories entirely told through song. As it was with Hooper’s own Les Misérables (2012), which became a highly successful film. However, Cats doesn’t share the same success, as the musical numbers don’t actually propel a narrative forward like they did in that earlier film. In the absence of quieter expositional scenes, the music should pick up the slack. Just cutting from one self-indulgent cat singing about themselves to the next cat doing the same doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
One could argue that this is just the nature of the story being told, but sadly Hooper doesn’t do much to help us understand this world. The lyrics of the songs are convoluted, unclear and filled with unexplained gibberish. Stories with nonsense littered in the dialogue only work if the story explains itself with visual implications, but Cats is missing this very key component. The audience is left scratching their heads, wondering what the hell is going on and what it all means. What’s most shocking is how the film directly expects the viewer to have totally understood everything that just happened, despite never once actually explaining anything in a coherent manner. There are plenty of films out there which communicate to their audience in obscure ways, but what’s done here is beyond obscurity.
The odd narrative could be forgiven if the visuals were pleasant, which sadly aren’t. The actors bodies are covered with computer generated cat hair, attempting to look groundbreaking and magical but instead ends up being unnerving and kind of disturbing. What you’ve heard is true: these humanoid cats are nightmarish. With more time allowed for post-production, it’s perfectly possible that a satisfying rendering of these human-cats could have been achieved. Instead, the result is a half-cooked mess. It’s not just the cats that make the skin crawl, as there’s plenty of imagery which double down on that. The over-reliance on CGI even makes the entire world and production design feel odd and uncomfortable.
It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that this story would achieve the intended affect on Broadway. Seeing all these crazy visuals and strange story points would’ve been spectacular and magical when it’s live on stage. There isn’t any effort made to transplant Cats to cinema, as Hooper’s direction seems more suited to the stage. The strange CGI would have been uncomfortable enough, but the craftsmanship of the entire film doesn’t help. The visual cues and blocking by the performers isn’t moulded to the cinematic medium. This results in the entire piece having awkward and horrifying movement, which is unintentionally funny at times. A real miss considering it’s clearly intending to be heartfelt and magical.
The main saving grace is the talented actors. The direction, story and music do nothing to make the film enjoyable, but you can’t deny that the performers know how to sing and dance. On their own merits, these are skilled actors and dancers who all hit their marks, hit the high notes, and put their all into these lavish musical sequences. It may seem obvious to note all this, but a musical requires highly skilled men and women to bring it to life. None of the performers seem to be phoning it in. From Francesca Hayward to Jennifer Hudson, everyone has shown up to give it their all. None of the songs or performances save the viewing experience, but it does show that this was a project the cast and crew were passionate about.
In the end, it’s actually kind of awe-inspiring how so much effort can be this misplaced. From having a competent director, a massive team of computer animators and highly skilled performers, Cats is a prime example of the kind of disaster that can only be made by people who care about their art. This may be a story that should have stayed away from cinema screens, but the fact that they even attempted it warrants some respect. Let’s just hope that this level of pedigree is directed towards a more worthwhile project next time.
Best way to watch it: Hallucinogenic drugs might make the experience more horrifying, so maybe just watch it with lots of booze.