Have you been an alumnus of Heaven or Hell? A prominent lyric of the film’s prologue and a question that I was pondering throughout Cats. A film based on the popular stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber featuring a star-studded cast, but the irony is that even before the film came out, it reached levels of infamy due to its nightmarish CGI. But the question remains, is there more to this film than the striking and disturbing visuals?
As a stage show, it can be hard to recommend. Yes the choreography is fantastic and the songs entertaining, but a musical to me should be so much more than that. A musical should use music to elevate character and story rather than act as a crutch to these factors. The very nature of Cats is based on a series of T.S. Eliot poems meaning that there isn’t much of a complex story, just a group of cats hoping to be chosen to ascend to a new life. I will say that I have a deep respect for a lot of the songs of the show, because of nostalgia and the spectacle factor. These were the feelings I had going into the film, but I was willing to give it a chance (despite some of my scathing jokes towards it).
Let’s start off light. The choreography. Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer of my favourite show, Hamilton) was heavily advertised as being the choreographer of this film, and in fairness, it’s a strong element here. The amount of effort and detail into the movements (as well as the fact that the cast attended cat school to master moving like cats) does add to the film. Granted, it makes a lot of the posing feel incredibly uncomfortable at times, but cats do that to me in general anyway so that’s fine.
The dance numbers are supported by high production sets too. They create a series of giant streets and rooms within houses to allow the dancers to move about freely and to completely tower the dance numbers, it has a decent amount of atmosphere. When you combine those sets with smooth and high-quality cinematography, you're definitely left with a nice looking film.
The weakness that the choreography faces is that of over saturation. Many of the song numbers are changed to include as many of the cats as possible that we see them dancing almost constantly. Over time this means that the numbers themselves become stale and boring. All the nice sets in the world couldn't save the numbers when this feeling hits the audience.
What also doesn’t help is the CGI on the dancers’ bodies. The dancing no longer becomes visual or thrilling. Part of the stage experience is the wonder of watching actual dancers pulling off some of these moves so even if there is a degree of it left, when there is so much CGI involved you can’t help but wonder how much is real. There’s one more issue with the film’s use of CGI but I can’t quite remember what it is. Oh, wait...
It is utterly terrifying.
There is some really poor work going on in this film. Behind the scenes stories don’t support it either. With the last visual effects being finished on the day of the worldwide premiere and the fact that constant visual updates are being added to the film whilst in cinemas, it never implies good quality. I just happened to be an unlucky sucker who saw the film too early so had to contend with awkward face blurs and the tails (oh god those tails) being freaky eyesores.
Seriously, there was no need to go to this level of “detail” to make them look catlike. The stage show did just fine with their costumes.
As this is one of the most famous musicals out there, let’s talk about the songs. I will admit that the staging and performance of Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats was well done. Partly because this is one of the few songs performed in the spirit of the original show. There were lots of creative choices for the songs which did not pay off. In the original show, lots of the songs about cats were sung by 3rd parties, creating a mysterious element. Here, they take the approach of having those songs now being sung by the cat in question. The reason for that is the narrative technique they introduce. The idea is that each cat will sing a song that is “them” in order to be chosen. This leads to some awful interpretations such as the previously glorious Mr Mistoffelees now being a nervous wreck and coming across as the worst magician ever, to Bustopher Jones no longer being a sophisticated cat but an absolute glutton.
It also makes the film feel even more of a sterile musical because instead of these characters bursting out into song and dance whenever they feel, it’s more a case of waiting for your turn and being summoned onto the stage. Gus: The Theatre Cat is the only song that survives this treatment because, well, he’s a theatre cat. The song is in the style of a monologue being performed by Ian McKellan, so of course, it’s going to be fine.
The most unforgivable sin that the music suffers from is its treatment of Memory. First of all, there was controversy around Jennifer Hudson being cast as Grizabella because of the style of performance and her relative youth in comparison to the age of the character. As someone who probably wasn’t best suited to that role, her performance was the most engaging in the film. The actual sound design during Memory let her down however, with the music turned up full force, practically masking the triumphant moment during the song in a way that was noticeable and not welcomed.
That’s not even the major issue I have. My problem is with the new song introduced right after the Prelude to Memory. Our new Oscar-baity song- Beautiful Ghosts (Victoria’s Song), a song sung where Victoria has just listened to the woes and struggles of Girzabella, the most sympathetic character in the film and who is obviously destined and deserving of a new life. Yet this new song tells her to be grateful that she’s better off and got more to be thankful than Victoria. I am not kidding. Listen to the lyrics properly and this is the comparison being made. Memory is the song people think of when they think of Cats. You do not try and piggyback off of its success in this way and you certainly don't disrespect the message of this song.
It also makes for a confusing character dynamic because Victoria throughout has tried to reach out to her and even is the one to bring her into the Jellicle Ball. So the fact that she’d say this to her and then show no moment of changing perspective is jarring. This was the one part of the film I watched purely with utter disgust.
Speaking of disgust lets talk about the performances. I am not shy about my dislike of Rebel Wilson and James Corden, so when I saw them both cast for this film, my reaction was strong. What I was not prepared for was their complete disinterest in trying to be their characters. They were not acting, they were being Rebel Wilson and James Corden. Corden even breaks character and massively undermines his own character halfway through Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town, a song focused on showing him eating a vast amount food and commenting on his fat shape, to deliver a Corden-esque line about weight sensitivity. The two do not go together at all. And don’t even get me started on Wilson’s overuse of cat clichés (she's also an awful singer).
Nobody comes out of Cats well. Taylor Swift's brief appearance comes off as lazy with a British accent that is laughable. Idris Elba tries to bring terror and edge to a character that doesn’t do anything to actually warrant it, along with a pathetic high pitched Macavity call when he leaves in a puff of smoke. Even Judy Dench, a celebrated veteran actress doesn’t do well by virtue of lacking the singing talent needed for the power and authority of Old Deuteronomy. At least if you find Ian McKellan’s cat mannerisms funny, you’ll enjoy him.
I do look forward to seeing Francesca Hayward again purely because I want to judge her for a production where everyone’s performances are consistent. If I were to judge her here, then she would be heavily criticised for how little she changes her character throughout. She maintains the same facial expression of wonder and intrigue and it wears thin by the end.
If you're confused as to why I haven't discussed the story that much, that's because one doesn't really exist past the "Jellicle choice" alluded to earlier. They try to add a more sinister plot for Macavity, but ultimately it is ridiculous and a waste of time. He kidnaps major characters to keep them out of the way so that he will be selected only to be told that it will never happen. Nothing of consequence happens and even facilitates baffling and embarrassing actions sequences which further suffocate any sense of dignity that the film was able to maintain. Macavity doesn't even seem to be all that mad that his plan failed, so why should I care?
Cats was one of the most painful experiences I had to sit through. I had the vague hope halfway through that perhaps I could see this as entertainingly bad, but I wasn’t even awarded that joy. It was soulless dancing, half-hearted songs, and insulting characterisations. If I have to give any credit to this film, it would be that all I wanted to do whilst watching it is go home and cuddle my dog, because I am completely done with Cats.