Andrew Lloyd Webber has made such a prolific name for himself as an impresario in the world of musical theater, that there have been select attempts at bringing his work from the stage to the silver screen; first with Evita in the mid-90s, and the 2004 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. Now, after becoming one of the longest running shows on Broadway since its debut in 1981, his arguably most famous musical, Cats, finally gets the big-screen treatment courtesy of Universal Pictures and co-writer/director Tom Hooper.
What you’ll believe in is rather unclear. . .but there’s a singing competition with a lot on the line in this film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway smash musical.
Audiences have wondered how Cats would translate to the film medium given its story structure and source material (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot), and those intrigued into seeing it this weekend will be speechless and appalled at the results, because despite strong performances among its cast and great production design, Cats is truly one of the most unique disasters to make its way into a movie theater in quite some time thanks to uneven visual effects, a cringe-inducing sense of humor and lazy direction.
Cats follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a ballet dancer in her screen debut), a humanoid white cat who begins the film abandoned by her previous owner, only to be quickly discovered by the Jellicle Cats, a race of felines who gather once every year for the Jellicle Ball, a party where several cats engage in a singing competition to be given passage to the Heaviside Layer, and return to the surface world with a new Jellicle life.
With the guidance of Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), Victoria meets several characters along the way, from the overweight Bustopher Jones (James Corden), gumbie cat Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), and glamour cat-turned-decrepit recluse Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to wise leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), magician Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and party animal Rum Tum Tugger (Jason DeRulo), while the nefarious Macavity (Idris Elba) uses his magical powers to kidnap other cats in the competition in hopes of claiming the trip for himself.
If the premise of ‘American Idol with a grand prize vacation to Cat Heaven’ doesn’t pique your interest, the major selling point of Cats as a film is the music that made the stage play so enduring and iconic. The songs that profile select characters (Grizabella and Mistoffelees, especially) are performed with solid singing and acting ability from their respective singers, who in their renditions, add visual elements of storytelling and personality to the heavy emotion projected from their voices. An example comes in the pained expression on Hudson’s face during ‘Memory’ as a single tear rolls down her face, signifying Grizabella’s melancholy reflection on her past and longing to return to it.
It’s also worth noting that ‘Beautiful Ghosts’, the lone song written for the movie, is a worthy addition to the soundtrack for not only adding Victoria’s hopeful perspective to Grizabella’s plight, but also her own personal desire to be wanted. Meanwhile, every scene finds the Jellicle tribe in incredible, vibrant sets that emphasize how small they are compared to the barstools of their city’s milk bar, and the streetlights against which they rest.
It’s incontrovertible that one can’t alter a musical from stage to film without the music that made it famous, but what’s a bigger necessity is that the movie adaptation at least feels cinematic. Les Miserables had its flaws, but at least Hooper’s aesthetics grounded its grand story in the realism of any standard period drama. With Cats, Hooper adds nothing creative whatsoever to form a motivated narrative or a visceral tone out of Eliot’s nonsense verse, resulting in this adaptation feeling stagey in execution with embarrassing results that waste the talent of everyone involved, and craft a movie devoid of wonder or excitement.
This brings a detriment to the musical numbers, which are photographed in boring wide shots that only succeed in keeping all the dancers in frame, whereas in other sequences, such as Ian McKellen’s indiscernible talk-through of “Gus: The Theater Cat”, characters pipe about themselves in two different camera angles, only cutting away to shots of the other Jellicle cats listening with blank expressions, with neither image sparking investment or empathy. They’re also ugly to look at because of the motion capture visual effects that turn the ensemble into garish CGI renderings of humanoid felines that look unnatural when they jump from one trashcan to the next, and stuck in green screen Hell when they’re sliding down the railings of a lavish staircase.
Cats also has nothing to latch onto in terms of story or characters; Victoria is repurposed as the fish out of water through whom the audience learns about the Jellicles and their world, but she’s strung along from scene to scene with no rationale other than to meet the next one-dimensional character. But even the cats with their own songs don’t bear any weight or significance to Victoria’s journey, or have their own impulses for getting the Heaviside Layer. They just come for their one song and go only to appear later if not for no rhyme or reason, then for a revelation that means nothing because the movie’s stakes are non-existent. There’s not even a modicum of suspense to be felt when the villainous Macavity makes his appearances since they’re so few and far between, while other scenes are broken up by cringe-inducing fat jokes about Bustopher Jones’ rotund physique, and awful cat puns from Jennyanydots, who goes so far as to tell Bustopher during his song that he’s milking it. . .because cats drink milk. Get it???
There’s so much more about Cats that is atrocious to the point of veering the film toward ‘so bad it’s good’ territory, from quiet pregnant pauses that feature actors awkwardly staring at each other as if they’re waiting for the next music cue, to Old Deuteronomy’s end monologue to the audience about how to talk to a cat. (Yes, really.) Moments like these, along with boring musical numbers, lackadaisical direction and no intelligible stakes add up to one thing: Cats is a musical better left on the stage for its music to tell the story. The actors do their best to add some personality to the material they were given, but it’s not enough to fill all the voids of this film adaptation.
If you want to see a movie this holiday season, there are more entertaining options, even if you’ve soured on Star Wars (e.g. Jumanji: The Next Level). If you love musicals, go see Frozen II or find the stage play of Cats if it’s touring. If it’s not touring, rent the late 90s recreation of the stage show on DVD. If you’re a cat person, play with your own cat. If you don’t have a cat, go to a cat cafe or adopt one. Doing either of those things is more fun than witnessing the cinematic catastrophe that is Cats.