PSA: I’m a Cats apologist. As a child I would watch the VHS of the theatre production on repeat. I knew every jellicle cat’s name. The beauty of the musical, despite being an 80s coke-fuelled fever-dream of a production, is in the performers’ athleticism, the striking stage make-up and the extraordinary junkyard stage design. All of this captivated my childhood imagination and, to this day, I maintain a secret love for the show. I’ve grown to recognise its evident naffness and absurdity, but at eight years old I was busy wearing out a cassette tape of the songs whilst prancing around the living room. If there was ever a theatre show that shouldn’t be adapted to film, it’s undoubtedly Cats. Yet, director Tom Hooper follows up his underwhelming adaptation of Les Miserables with this unsettling adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s leotard-tastic, T.S. Elliot inspired tale where the uninspired casting is the last of its problems. The issues start with the unavoidable fact that Cats has next to no narrative. A mish-mash of themed musical numbers are delivered by different cats, each telling their own story. Everything is leading up to the ‘top dog’ (who I have suspicions may in fact be a cat-cult leader) selecting one individual who will go on to a new life in what is known as ‘The Heaviside Layer’, a purr-fect heaven that resides in the sky. Hooper has adapted the role of a secondary-character-cat and placed her at the heart of the action. Victoria is a newly abandoned kitten, introduced to her new feline friends and their rituals throughout one night at the ritualistic gathering known as The Jellicle Ball.
The theatre show’s set design is simple yet substantial. Cluttered piles of dustbins, garbage and recognisable British food brands decorated the 360 degree West End stage. The film’s world is just a highly digitised London town, vast and completely soulless. Similarly, the cats themselves are a concerning combination of badly mapped heads and lifeless fur. A mountain of critical commentary has already dealt with the film’s troubling facial fur technology but for me just as troubling were their feet. As the cats pop and lock their way through the city, their feet are often completely separate from the animated floorboards and cobbles on which they’ve been digitally placed. It’s awful to look at and a betrayal to the show’s original impressive artistic design. All the horrible visuals are captured with poor camera work and presented through uneven, shoddy editing. On top of this, the score is somehow even more synthetic sounding and dated than the original cast recordings from 1981. All in all, it’s a technical monstrosity. I was enraptured by the appalling chaos of it all and can’t deny that I did in fact have the most wonderful time. However, I predict that those with no previous exposure to the show will be predominantly bored and confused. At one moment I laughed out loud, sat on my own in the near-empty screen in sheer joyous disbelief that the film itself was so much worse than even those now iconic first trailers would have had us believe. Of course, Rebel Wilson and James Corden are both abhorrent but there are many more delightful crimes committed here that are much more worth discussing. Judi Dench, obviously here for the decent pay cheque, takes ‘old biddy facial hair’ to a whole new level and is a nightmarish vision as ‘Old Deuteronomy’. I did appreciate that once again she’s here gender-swapping an iconic role as she did with the notorious M. The most upsetting creature is Idris Elba’s Macavity whose shiny catsuit and odd choice of hat makes a mockery of the story’s original villain. He’s certainly scary, but for all the wrong reasons. As well as the cats themselves we’re also treated to digitally enhanced human-mice who were clearly added in once the SFX budget had already been drained.
I must also take a moment to express my frustration at the betrayals to some of the theatre show’s best characters. Aside from Corden and Wilson sucking all of the life out of fun comedy additions Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, Mr Mistoffelees is also reduced to a snivelling wet blanket instead of a confident, swaggering conjurer. Meanwhile a distressingly muscular Skimbleshanks (the Railway Cat) has embraced a Magic-Mike-esque tap-dancing persona and stripped out of his classy waistcoat altogether. A handful of positives include Sir Ian McKellen’s casting as Gus the Theatre Cat and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella. Both bring emotion and heart to an otherwise empty experience. McKellen is frail, funny and fur-ocious whilst Hudson (rocking a wonderful set of manicured claws) reminds us why she won her Academy Award for Dreamgirls with another raw belter of a performance. Jason Derulo, with a cockney accent to rival Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac, dances and sings well enough to fill the shoes of Rum Tum Tugger whilst Francesca Hayward (first and foremost a world class ballerina) is a great lead. I also rather enjoyed Taylor Swift’s Beautiful Ghosts, a brand new addition to the musical’s soundtrack. Despite the visual atrocities, the crimes committed against cinema and the tragic image of Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk from a saucer now burnt into my ‘Memory’, Cats was everything I hoped it would be. I experienced the same elation with the film as I did seeing the show in London at the age of ten, albeit a whole lot more ironically this time around. It’s not a cinema trip anybody could easily forget, let’s leave it at that. Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.