Horror films have had a banner year in 2019. They crept under the audience’s skin, lingering in the mind long after the credits had stopped rolling. But none of them seemed as haunting as the first theatrical trailer for Tom Hooper‘s Cats.
When the trailer was released, the public opinion was overwhelmingly negative. Many viewers were put off by the melding of CGI and live-action, and the memes came out in droves. But that didn’t seem to concern Hooper in the slightest. After all, he had already made daring filmmaking choices before, when having his actors sing live on set for Les Miserables (2012). What are a few part human, part CGI cats after that?
So, with a cast made up of veteran actors, talented dancers, and acclaimed singers, and a director with an impressive back catalogue, does Cats overcome its negative start?
Adapted from Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s smash hit musical (which already has a successful 1998 straight-to-video adaptation under its belt), Cats takes place during a cold night, following a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles. Living as strays, the Jellicles vie to be the one chosen for their greatest tradition, the Jellicle Choice, in which one cat will ascend to a sort of… cat heaven, known as the Heaviside Layer.
The fact is, there’s no real plot here. It’s more of a through-line, as the audience is introduced to each of the cats, and their inevitable song. Every character has a musical number of their own, and the actors are all game enough – especially veteran singers Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson – to handle the singing and dancing with enthusiasm.
Centering around newcomer cat Victoria (Francesca Heyward, convincingly wide-eyed), a white cat who was recently abandoned, the audience also meets Bustopher Jones (James Corden, a total goof), a portly cat whose gluttonous attitude gets the better of him; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo, uncontrollable), a wild cat who never abides by the rules; Macavity (Idris Elba, menacing), a sorcerer cat with menacing ulterior motives; Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen, oblivious), a washed-up thespian; Jennyanddots (Rebel Wilson, maddening), a slovenly cat whose lethargy is offset by her cockroach minions; Bombalurina (Swift, alluring), an alluring, sultry cat who has more of an innocent side than she lets on; and Grizabella (Hudson, heartfelt), a withering cat whose glory days are far behind her.
Swift really is a standout. Singing “Beautiful Ghosts”, a new number written by herself a Lloyd-Webber for the film, it is by far the most entertaining one in the film. Held up by Swift’s magnetic presence and musical chops, she’s the lone member of the cast that manages to make the most out of her screentime.
There’s certainly something to be said for enthusiasm – that Hooper and his team even attempted this adaptation is oddly impressive in and of itself – but that the film had only finished post-production mere hours before its world premiere tells you everything you need to know.
The world of the Jellicles would be interesting to follow if the film did not start off immediately, throwing away any sense of wonder or discovery. Meanwhile, the placement of the numbers in the story is so haphazard that one barely has any time to breathe or ruminate on what had just happened. It also interferes with the tone of the story, as it switches back and forth between tragic and comedic without rhyme or reason.
While the musical and dance numbers are perfectly fine in terms of vocals and choreography, the coverage and editing leaves a lot to be desired. The cinematography by Christopher Ross is misguidedly unglamourous, making the entire world look claustrophobic and overly staged. The green-screens are inconsistent at times – especially during “Skimbleshanks – The Railway Cat” – to the point that it ruins the immersion. To make matters worse, the editing by Melanie Ann Oliver is too choppy, cutting from shot to shot in rapid succession, leaving the audience little time to get emotionally invested into the numbers. And when one finally does, the number is already over. In addition to this, the awkward placement of comic relief in the numbers – particularly Wilson’s unfunny shtick involving swinging objects and characters muttering cat puns – is but another nail in the coffin.
But the real (unintentional and deeply disturbing) stars are those much-derided visual effects. Seeing the actors acting like cats with the CGI on display is both horrifying and hilarious, reaching a level that can only be described as “uncatty”. The faces of the actors rarely ever mesh with the bodies they have, which makes it look like Bruce Lee’s cardboard cutout face from The Game of Death. If seeing human faces on cockroaches gives you nightmares, Cats will have you running out of the cinema in utter shock.
There’s plenty of choices, both visual and in terms of story, that make no sense. Why do some of the cats wear clothes and some don’t? Why do cats have human hands? Why do cats have zippers on their fur? Not even the simple concept of cats landing on their feet is kept. How is it that Macavity and Mr Mistoffelees have magical powers and no one else does? And, perhaps most importantly, why are the Jellicles so excited that one of them is being sent to their DEATH?
Being as utterly bizarre as Cats is, you can expect plenty of unintentionally funny moments. One musical number involving Dench in full feline makeup, sees her breaking the fourth wall and staring at the camera for several minutes. The number goes for an excruciatingly long time, and its placement so close to the end makes it even more horrifying and chortle-worthy.
Other spit-take moments include the cat-humans flaunting their tails, spreading their legs, and singing while scratching themselves in a variety of positions – all fine for actual cats, but its something you never want to see in these uncomfortable hybrids.
Enraging, unfathomable, and laughable, Cats is a masochistic experience, that this reviewer rather hesitantly recommends – if only for the gamut of emotions it will take you through, leaving you scratched all over.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cats hits cinemas on Boxing Day.