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You’ve heard about the soul-troubling CGI cat monstrosities, but there’s plenty else amiss in Tom Hooper’s catastrophic production.
I’ve never seen the stage musical of Cats, so perhaps this means I cannot fully appreciate the film. Unless given the Jellicle baptism at a young age during brain development, there’s simply no way a puny adult mind could even begin to comprehend the point. “Cats is weird, it’s not supposed to make sense, you just don’t get it.” However, this doesn’t magically shield it from criticism. Sorry, but even Mr Mistoffelees can’t magic Tom Hooper out of this one.
I expected the worst. Purchasing a Tango Ice Blast seemed appropriate, as slurping that much sugary liquid in one sitting would give me an excuse to go to the loo and escape the madness for a few blissful moments. On the way I could, if desperate, nab my pal’s car keys and drive away without her. Every cat for himself. Hence my pleasant surprise when the opening shots of London were visually pleasing and rich in colour. Then the cats entered and all charm and whimsy immediately evaporated. I’m going to pause comments on the CGI because it’s been said already—for good reason because it is horrific—and there are other things at play beyond the cats looking creepy.
Francesca Hayward is clearly a very capable actor and entirely commits throughout, but sadly is given little to commit to. Victoria has two solitary dimensions: being a cat and being new. She takes the place of the audience as we are introduced to the Jellicles through her eyes, but this is no justification for making her so unfathomably dull because so are the rest of the cast. No other character, and even that word feels steep, presents anything other than that they are yet another cat with one defining characteristic. Consequently, the film consists of song after song of essentially “I am Blankity Blank the Blank Cat that likes to Blank, watch me Blank”. It is relentless.
This has issues beyond the fact that it’s tedious. As we know next to nothing about the cats, it’s difficult to invest in anything that happens to them. This is exacerbated by the uncanny valley character design so, even when faced with Jennifer Hudson belting ‘Memories’ whilst visibly snotting from the nose because she’s crying so much, I can honestly say I felt absolutely nothing.
These issues could be chalked up to the source material (though that begs the question why anyone thought it was an appropriate source in the first place), but Cats is one of the longest running West End musicals. Something didn’t add up, and I considered the argument that I couldn’t “get it” without seeing the show, so I went to YouTube to compare. I’ll admit that I probably wouldn’t enjoy the show either, but one thing can’t be denied: Cats is a spectacle. A large cast often fills the stage and it features impressive dance numbers, light up costumes and pyrotechnics. This spirit is not quite distilled into the film—something feels missing.
Choreography is not the issue, nor execution, but rather it’s the directorial choices that prevent us from appreciating the whole. Large ensemble dances are too often interrupted by close-ups, and what we can see is rendered unimpressive by CGI fur tech leading you to forget actual actors are performing. Thanks to a rushed post-production, no movement looks real, meaning for the same effect they may as well have copied and pasted actors’ faces onto fully animated bodies. In fact, it might have actually looked better. Feet frequently phase through the floor and faces move in the opposite direction to the rest of the head, actively detracting from the efforts put in by clearly talented performers. It’s genuinely quite sad.
The stage production is also funnier. I could write a paragraph on this but I won’t. The jokes in the film were just bad.
Certain character choices are jarring, notably Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots, although I only realised to what extent when watching stage recordings where I could actually hear the lyrics. Hooper’s choice to record all the vocals live for a sense of intimacy a la Les Mis isn’t executed well. Certain songs are made even more monotonous, and many have issues with sound mixing. Vocals are often swamped by backing and enunciation could be improved, so lyrics are frequently hard to make out. Given what modicum of plot exists is all contained within the songs, this means the film descends even further into incoherent madness than originally intended.
Immersion into the Jellicle universe is also lost in translation. The cast don’t fill the shots like they do a stage, highlighted by inconsistent scaling meaning at times they look roughly the size of pepper grinders. Having one set on stage works because the Jellicles aren’t really put into a wider real-world context, but on the screen London’s streets are empty with only twenty-ish cats occupying them. It leaves too many questions. In doing so, the Jellicles feel less like an absorbing alternate universe and more like we’re peering into the inner workings of a small and quite sinister cult. I didn’t want to go the Jellicle Ball, I wanted to run far away from it.
To those saying at least Cats took risks, I disagree. On paper Cats is the perfect money-making formula: a star-studded cast containing a mix of respected actors and popstars; yet another remake of popular source material; visual effects promising to be ground-breaking, and a soundtrack you can hop onto iTunes and buy. It didn’t fail because risks were taken, it failed because it was rushed, and it let down a lot of talented people in the process. Jellicles can and Jellicles do, but Jellicles didn’t think before Jellicles did.
Watching Cats previously uninitiated in Jellicle lore, I felt I was losing my marbles one by one as they uncontrollably spilled from my ears onto the floor. I tried collecting them at the end, but I think a couple may still be rolling under the chairs with some popcorn kernels and a dried-out puddle of Pepsi Max. Even after initiating myself I still can’t find them. Maybe Macavity teleported them onto a barge. R.I.P.
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