Abandoned on the streets of London, a cat called Victoria, (Francesca Hayward) finds herself surrounded by a tribe of street cats called ‘Jellicles’. As each one introduces themselves, it becomes clear that they have gathered tonight for one specific purpose. Their matriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will make a special appearance and whereupon she will choose one of them to be reborn into a new life…
… now having watched both the stage musical, the trailer and the film, you have to wonder what people were seriously expecting?
Based on ‘Cats – the Musical‘ by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, the case for adapting one of the West End’s and Broadway’s longest-running successes seemed clear. Debuting nearly forty years ago, ‘Cats’ has transcended expectations by becoming a veritable theatre phenomenon. However, in this cinematic adaptation by director Tom Hooper, its embrace has been stiffened by a constricting tide of criticism that refuses to let go.
Chief amongst its complaints is its heavy reliance upon computer-generated imagery (CGI). With each cast member covered in digital fur during post-production, the critical claws have been out for this movie from its very first teaser. Visually landing somewhere between photorealism and animation, the look of ‘Cats’ inhabits a purgatorial place where it is neither fish nor flesh. Not cat-like enough be cats, not human enough to be human, the result is either a fantasy look you can embrace or one that leaves you cold. Not unsurprisingly for our judgemental times, ‘Cats’ stone-throwers were quickest to cover the ground. However, now having watched both the stage musical, the trailer and the film, you have to wonder what people were seriously expecting? The film, as with the play, is filled with people looking like cats, trying to act like cats and compared to the stage musical’s costumes, the film’s furry effects are an actual improvement.
So, why hasn’t ‘Cats’ worked? The simple answer is in its presentation. Whilst the visuals, lighting and stage sets have all benefitted by the advances in modern technology, the soundtrack to ‘Cats’ has been left to wither on the vine.
An aching, qualitative abyss at its very centre, the nuances of the cast’s vocals and dialogue never progress beyond the flatness of the screen. Dead, empty and rendered bare, what dialogue there is, feels like a guide track for a remastering that never happened. As a result (and is so often the case), when a movie’s picture is lousy, audiences complain about the sound, and when the sound is rubbish, then they complain about the picture. Add to this a leadenly dated orchestration and ‘Cats’ synthesisers will drag you back to a blandness that time intentionally forgot.
Sadly left to fend for themselves on Tom Hopper’s attractively-lit London streets, there are some very definite winners and losers in Tom Hooper’s cat-like cast. Chief amongst the successes are Jennifer Hudson’s tearful vocals, Rebel Wilson’s comic timing and Francesca Hayward’s affecting lead debut. However mired in marmite is James Corden’s divisive presence, Jason Derulo’s credibility-for-catnip trade-off and Taylor Swift’s mercifully short descent from the chandeliers. Left alone to hold up the remaining scenery is Judi Dench, who is charged with summarising both the plot and premise half-way through – which had this been done at film’s outset, might have vastly improved its comprehension. Sadly though, whilst Ian McKellen dutifully bumps his head against the scenery and licks his whiskers, even his feline observations cannot save ‘Cats’ from the mauling it’s going to receive.
Like Jennifer Hudson’s tear-inducing rendition of ‘Memories’, the cast do their best to raise Tom Hooper’s sinking ship but the real cause for ‘Cats’s demise is not curiosity but time. For a source text whose age the producers stubbornly refused to acknowledge, they presumed that modern visuals alone would carry the day – and now in that most financially damning of terms, they have discovered that they were wrong.
So, is there is any compelling reason left to see ‘Cats’? Is it a prospect so woeful that it is only best served with hilarity or is still there some fertile earth beneath its furry paws? As with any film, it really depends on what preconceptions you bring with you. Whilst its facial mapping regularly escapes its target, ‘Cats’ is a decent-enough stage production which defies its limitations with a rendition that will at least reward existing fans or those who can’t attend its theatre show.
Riven with what feels like lazy ambition from its outset, ‘Cats – the Musical’‘ deserved a much better home than it eventually got. Clearly suffering from neglect and a soundtrack which you could wrap yourself around in, ‘Cats’ still has enough residual charm to draw you in, whilst not ever being the cat’s whiskers.
-Don’t believe me? Watch Disney’s remake of ‘Beauty and The Beast‘ and then you can discover what redundancy is all about.