Even if you’ve seen a stage production of Cats, it won’t prepare you for Tom Hooper’s adaptation. Trading in the athletic, humanoid bodies of trained dancers for weird CGI hybrids that challenge the uncanny valley and the very concept of good taste, the film never quite finds its feet. When you’re continually subjected to its strangeness, Cats does become more familiar; it’s difficult to ever let any suspension of disbelief set in. In an age of highly calibrated, algorithm-created blockbusters, Cats is an anomaly: a movie that foregoes all common sense and logic.
If you have no idea what Cats is about, let it be said that even the Broadway production has a pretty thin story. It’s a cat talent show where the winner gets to go to some version of cat-heaven. Every song is more or less a different cat introducing themselves. There are troublemaking cats, theatre cats, railway cats and, mystifyingly, a sex-worker cat. Some of the cats are evil, like Macavity (Idris Elba), who plots to win the contest by using magic to make his competitors disappear into puffs of smoke and teleport to a barge in the middle of the Thames river. Some cats are less evil but are usually at the very least sinister or, at best, pathetic. To this day, it’s unclear whether Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is pro- or anti-cat.
On stage, Cats has always favoured athleticism and flexibility. It always seemed to be a showcase of great dancers, and that doesn’t quite work in Hooper’s adaptation. As with most contemporary directors of musicals, Hooper has very little sense of where to place the camera to best showcase dancers. Still, beyond that, the CGI fails to strike a comfortable balance between humans and animals. The movements and actions are all “catified,” bending and curving human figures a little bit beyond what they can usually do. If the performers are talented dancers, it doesn’t show, because they’ve been “enhanced” thanks to the magic of visual effects.
The fact that the cats have strange, floating human faces is similarly disturbing. All too often, the human faces feel slightly off-centre. When in a full, real costume (rather than a computerized bodysuit), the line between costume and make-up is more than enough to let you follow into a landscape of imagination — there’s no room for that here. It also emphasizes how not all the actors have faces suited to be cats. While this might be a casting failure, it’s more likely a failure in design. Some of these actors ought to be pretty unhappy with the treatment of their performances because they end up looking ridiculous… through no fault of their own.
There are a lot of other consequences of the CGI work that make the film unappealing. All the landscapes and environments have a weird sheen. They’re a little too clean and too animated, but they’re still too rooted in realism. This film might have been a perfect opportunity to take more risks and go a little weird or painterly, but everything feels a bit muddy and like a weird “I Spy” PC game. The other CGI splurges, like cats with zippers and dancing cockroaches, similarly fall flat. More than just not working, they end up feeling quite disconcerting.
Your mileage on the music itself will likely depend on how you feel about Webber’s musical in the first place. If you don’t like the songs from Cats, there’s no way this will change your mind. Hooper’s preferences for raw and unclean voices test the boundaries of good taste, especially when he’s working with non-singers. There is a certain amount of vulnerability in this approach, and the actors themselves tend to do their best to sell it, but if you’re looking for victories in the film, you’re not going to find it on the level of music and singing. Still, Jennifer Hudson does a pretty good job singing “Memory,” that most iconic song from the stage play, though it would also be a stretch to say she outdoes or even comes close to Betty Buckley’s performance. That’s not a knock against Hudson, Buckley is just on another all-time level.
Cats, as an experience, is almost weird enough to recommend. It has to be seen to be believed, but the trailer serves as a pretty comfortable amuse-bouche for what you’re getting into. Overall, there are few highlights at all, and as an experience, it is pretty tedious and redundant. It’s a film that is near-impossible to lose yourself in, and even the strangeness of it all is so repetitive that it’s hardly worth seeing to marvel at its existence. ■
Cats opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 20. Watch the trailer here: