Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Robbie Fairchild
Studio: Universal Pictures
When people go to see a stage production of “Cats,” they get what they pay for.
Sure, there are people dressed like cats jumping, singing and dancing around a set for two hours, but in some ways it acts as a distillation and celebration of the bombast of musical theater. It may not be a particularly deep experience, but ironically, the human element of “Cats” is what usually makes it work.
Within 20 minutes of the 2019 film adaptation of “Cats,’” a CGI cat with Rebel Wilson’s face unzips her clothes (that happen to look like every other CGI cat’s nude body) to reveal she’s actually wearing a vest on top of her actual fur. She then knocks human-faced CGI cockroaches off of a table and eats them, much to the glee of the other human-faced CGI cats.
“Cats,” directed by Best-Director-Oscar-winning Tom Hooper is an adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which itself is a loose adaptation of a poetry collection written by T.S. Eliot. Consequently, seeing this film and expecting a tight, well-written script is a fool’s errand.
There are many great musical films and adaptations: “La La Land,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Into the Woods,” “Les Misérables” (directed by Hooper). Webber is also a talented songwriter and musical producer, and his “Phantom of the Opera” is undoubtedly one of the catchiest and most classic musicals of all time (though its film adaptation isn’t great).
People go to see these musicals and musical films for the spectacle and obviously the music.
And honestly, “Cats” isn’t a terrible idea on a conceptual level. Seeing it on the stage would probably be a fun experience, so adapting it into a film could work.
But Hooper’s “Cats” is a grotesque experience that is not only repulsive to look at, but is also mind-numbingly boring.
The mostly nonsensical plot surrounds a cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who is abandoned by her owners and comes to meet a tribe (or cult?) of religious alleycats known as the “Jellicles.” They introduce her to their Jellicle ways and explain to her that later that night, one of them will be chosen to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” and be reincarnated, as chosen by the eldest Jellicle, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench).
But ostracized criminal cat Macavity (Idris Elba) has his own plans to be chosen. As he enacts his evil plan, it is up to Victoria, the Jellicles and “magical cat” Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) to stop him so Old Deuteronomy can choose the worthiest cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer.
As one can probably glean from the summary, there isn’t much going on narratively and the majority of the film moves from musical number to musical number, with most songs just being about a different cat and what makes them special or interesting.
As a result, “Cats” is, consequently, a film that rests on the strengths of the visuals and songs.
From a visual standpoint, this film is atrocious. The cats look horrifying; Hooper apparently decided human faces on bipedal CGI cat bodies was a good idea. On top of this, these CGI cats jumping around the set are harshly lit by the gaudy neon lights of the city alleyway, making the CGI even more uncanny. The backgrounds and sets are poorly made, overly spacious and evoke more of an empty-video-game-map feeling than a believable real-life or fantasy city.
Plus, the movie can’t seem to pick a size scale; sometimes cats will dive into huge human-proportioned garbage cans and other times stand atop statues of humans or lions not much larger than them. When it comes to visuals, “Cats” botched it.
Musically, the songs are Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most predictable. Aside from the admittedly catchy “Mr. Mistoffelees,” they’re the musical equivalent of candy: overly-saccharine and pleasant but not to be consumed in a marathon session. Also, for the most part, the singing gets the job done (save a couple terrible performances) but simply does not make up for the rest of the film.
The capital sin that this film commits though is even with bizarre scenes like the one with Rebel Wilson described earlier peppered throughout, it manages to become incredibly boring. The camera work is not dynamic in the slightest and doesn’t highlight the dancing, choosing instead to focus mainly on closeups of the cats’ gross CGI-human faces. The first few times the cats’ faces are in full frame are horrible but strangely entertaining due to their grotesqueness, but by the end they serve to suck the life out of the film’s audience.
As a result, “Cats” is not a film likely to go down in history as anything more than a strange footnote in the end-of-the-2010s cinema playbook. It’s not good in the slightest and doesn’t play upon the strengths of the source material. It’s not gaudy, entertaining or self-aware enough to become a cult film in the likes of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It’s just boring, poorly made and impossible to recommend to anyone except already-converted Jellicle fans who live and breathe “Cats” at any quality level.
In an era of endless Marvel, Star Wars and Disney movies, “Cats” boldly tries to stand out (who was asking for a “Cats” movie in 2019?), but given the choice between this and whatever the next Star Wars trilogy has planned, I’ll take the Jedis over Jellicles any day.
Alex Whetham is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @alexo774
Alex Whetham is an asst. arts editor for The Spectrum.