Cats is essentially a pantomime masquerading as a musical. The choreography and music are its core attractions and while the campy fun of having a stage full of adults in onesies pretending to be felines may have its place, perhaps it should only ever be on a stage or in your living room. This has now been the case study and experience of Cats, a film directed by The King’s Speech and Les Miserables director, Tom Hooper. While some of his bold choices have paid off in other films, unfortunately the same cannot be said for his latest musical, an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and TS Eliot’s poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Following a tribe of Cats called the Jellicles, we discover their who’s who in an annual culmination in which one gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. While this makes it all sound quite exotic, intriguing and confusing, it’s essentially a parade of characters who are getting catnapped by the one with the power to teleport. It all sounds pretty trippy and based on what’s on offer, perhaps it was intended to be screened in a haze of smoke. If you’ve seen the back alley musical, you’ll know this story is quite different from the usual song and dance. Hooper teams up with Lee Hall, whose screenwriting credentials include: Billy Elliot, War Horse and Rocketman. Despite having the right experience, adapting a long-running musical and mingling it with a poetry collection can be tricky.
It’s even trickier when the film’s design and tone is muddled and undecided. Cats is as awkward as the live-action Garfield, aiming for the same level of kitsch as Moulin Rouge with dabs of The Wizard of Oz. Are they human or are they cats? These questions are simply swept under the kitty litter tray. Never fully establishing the rules, we are left to stumble our way through the story, which is kept upbeat by simply introducing one quirky and egotistical cat after another. As much as they try to naturalise this concept for cinema, it never becomes believable or comfortable, alienating rather than endearing audiences.
“How did I get into this picture?”
When you’re watching actors in a stage play, there are certain liberties that we sometimes take for granted when transplanting stage productions into film settings. Stage allows a shared space of reality, where audiences are invited to roll with it, permitting subtle backdrop changes, audience interaction and offering a much greater spectrum of forgiveness when it comes to illusion. When you’re establishing a film’s universe, there’s a different set of rules to maintaining that space and the carefully cultivated reality can be shattered by finer inconsistencies and details.
One of the film’s biggest victories is its star-studded cast, boasting: Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo and ballet dancer, Francesca Hayward. From screen legends to music industry darlings, its an inspired ensemble who are not short on natural charm. Actress and ballerina Francesca Hayward is captivating and enigmatic as the lead but insubstantial as a character and surprisingly it’s Taylor Swift’s short appearance that steals the show with a music video style showstopper. While the first-rate performers have earned our respect, Cats tarnishes their good track records with its unflattering costumes and slinky manoeuvres. Obscuring their performances with make up and/or CG effects, it’s almost a favour to shroud the cast in a few shades of anonymity.
Ultimately it’s a bizarre, overcooked and uncomfortable musical that leans heavily on the only things that are working for it: its cast, soundtrack and dance choreography. It’s a real pity that such fine ingredients didn’t amount to more, but serves as a healthy reminder that a big budget, a stellar cast and great spectacle doesn’t automatically guarantee a box office hit. Cats may develop a cult-following and is so bad you may have to sidestep this warning and see it for yourself.
The bottom line: Misguided