The pedigree in this film adaptation of “Cats” is off the charts: You have Tom Hooper who directed “Les Miserables” to award-winning acclaim, venerable acting stalwarts Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, musical megastar Taylor Swift, fellow A-listers Idris Elba, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson… the list goes on. There’s some serious star power behind this thing, not to mention an undying interest on this Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical itself that has made it one of the longest running musicals ever.
Despite all these factors that ought to have made this film the biggest of the year, “Cats” did poorly in the box office (so far earning $60 million according to Box Office Mojo against a $90 million budget) and has been eviscerated by critics worldwide since it premiered in the US last month.
From the get-go, it was a surprising choice to adapt to film. Based on T.S. Eliot’s collection of poetry about cats, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” it didn’t really have much of a plot to begin with. On stage, it was more of a revue of different types of cats introducing themselves and their unique quirks, but they do this to present themselves to top cat, Old Deuteronomy, to be chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer, or their idea of cat heaven.
Hooper, who also wrote the screenplay with Lee Hall, attempted to expound on this thin plot by making Elba’s Macavity a proper villain to overcome. He kidnaps the cats, you see, to eliminate Old Deuteronomy’s ( Dench) options and force her hand. To force more of a story, there’s even a hint of romance between some of the cats.
It’s not really these shoehorned inserts that make the film distinctly atrocious. Some of its imagery is distressing. Projecting human faces on cat-like bodies is already jarring, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this film. Early into the movie, there are scores of live cockroaches whose tap dancing prowess doesn’t lessen their atrocity. At some point, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) unzips her skin to reveal that she has a fully-clothed cat body underneath. It is truly bizarre, as was the unfocused script that also reveal that some of these cats have actual magical powers of teleportation.
It doesn’t succeed in convincing the audience to suspend its disbelief. Maybe because it decided to cast the biggest names that would willfully allow itself to be associated with such an endeavor, but some parts of it also look unpolished, such as the overtly terrible CGI with the mice (who were performed by children for some reason) and unfinished transformation of some of the cats especially in their hands. It was so bad that it prompted the studio behind the film, Working Title, to resend a patched version of the film to major cinemas in the United States.
What’s interesting about this film is that if you’re somehow familiar with the stage production—say if you saw it last year when it returned to the stage starring Joanna Ampil—its most ridiculous elements would have been something you’ve braced for. Knowing that it is no more than a parade of cats introducing themselves, some of the numbers in the film looked quite fascinating; not enough to say that they were good but enough for them to be a different and interesting take. The inexplicable final scene of Old Deuteronomy breaking the fourth wall to lecture about the nature of cats also would feel a lot less random.
In the most subdued of numbers, devoid of too much ridiculous CGI and meaningless razzle dazzle, you see its saving grace. McKellen as Gus the theater cat singing about his fascinating life as a West End performer, Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” as Grizabella, and even Francesca Hayward as Victora singing the Swift-penned addition “Beautiful Ghosts” give brief glimpses of sanity in this overwhelming spectacle. But these scenes are few and far between, and no one’s final takeaway when there exists an unsettlingly furry and unsettlingly naked Elba seared into the viewer’s brains.
The bad outweighs the good in this film, which is most unfortunate as its less starry cast members like Hayward and Laurie Davidson who plays Mr. Mistofelees gave some of the film’s better performances. Ultimately, “Cats” might be an example that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be, and that some titles are better left for the stage.
Header photo screengrabbed from “Cats The Movie” trailer
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