CATS has long been the source of both fascination and consternation amongst musical fans. Does it create the same sort of discomfort on the big screen?
The Idea Behind CATS
What musical fans know that moviegoers might not is CATS has a baked in bizarreness. Yes, much has been made of the digital fur and how odd that looked in the trailers. However, CATS has never been a “normal” experience.
Loosely (VERY LOOSELY) adapted from T.S. Eliot poems, CATS exists mostly as a song and dance showcase contained by an odd conceit. Essentially, a community of cats, referred to as jellicle, come together periodically for the Jellicle Ball. In the Ball, several compete in a talent show of sorts for Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench). The one judged most worthy is sent off to the Heaviside Layer where they will be reborn as the cat they’ve always wanted to be. Not to be overly flip, but it is essentially the story of suicide cult with heavy beliefs in reincarnation. Amongst the competitors are the indecisive Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the traditionalist Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), the threatical Gus (Ian McKellen), the foodie Bustopher Jones (James Corden), the train enthusiast Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), and the outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson).
Macavity (Idris Elba) a criminal cat with some kind of teleportation powers has decided this will be the year that he will go heaviside. In order to earn the Layer, he sets about isolating and sending each cat to a barge in the Thames River. There Growltiger (Ray Winstone) acts as prison warden, holding them in heavy chains until Macavity “earns” his victory. Other allies include the showgirl-esque Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) who acts as his hype woman and the twin thieves Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins).
On hand to witness this all is new stray but not yet jellicle, the kind Victoria (Francesca Hayward).
The above “reads” as a lot of plot, but you do not experience it that way in the watching. Again, it really just exists to string together a series of song and dance numbers by people dressed (or in this case, digitally animated) to look like cats.
Lee Hall and director Tom Hooper’s adaptation for the screen does almost nothing to change that. CATS, as a film, remains as aggressively formless as the musical. It is, essentially, in film terms, all second act. All rising action, very little by way of climax. Moreover the climax is immediately deflated by the final song “The Ad-dressing of Cats”, an epilogue that deflates what little excitement the winner of the Jellicle Ball generates.
They do trim some numbers and add a brand-new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” but none of it gives the proceedings any kind of energy or leads to a tighter story.
Casting the CATS
Evaluating the work of the performers here almost feels unfair to me. As I will discuss more below, there is a lot in terms of setting and how the movie is shot that actively works against the actors. Additionally, the film’s commitment to depicting the characters as cat like varies great performer to performer. For instance, Jennyanydots goes very feline, complete with cleaning and scratching every bit of herself in front of everyone and the camera. Victoria, on the other hand, has almost no catlike features with the exception of the occasional nuzzle.
Another issue comes from the music. I hesitate to call the songs but very few of them are catchy. Even “Memory,” far and away CATS most famous tune, is more of a big bombastic ballad then the kind of tune you hum on your way home after the curtain falls. As a result, the movie, like the show, creates a distance from the viewer. The songs may be easy to appreciate but they feel near impossible to love, no matter the thing they’re sung with.
Saying, “this person did well,” or “this person did poorly” feels kind of impossible and unfair is what I’m declaring.
Size in CATS
In the first 10 minutes or so of CATS, the film feels almost dizzying. The combination of perspective, camera movement, and CGI fur creates a surreality that somehow strikes one’s inner ear. You should blame yourself if you feel nauseous in the early going. It does fade, but it may just be an accumulation thing, like how one gets used to the language of Shakespeare over the course of the first scene. This, however, should not be interpreted as things getting better.
First, the perspective thing. The idea of making the sets oversized to give us a cat’s eye view of the world certainly intrigues. However, Hooper goes about it in such a terribly inconsistent way. From the moment the only human we ever see drops off Victoria in a trash strewn alleyway, the illusion is already falling apart. For one, Hooper cannot seem to figure out how to film the woman’s leg and the cats to make them feel proportional to one another. Thus, it reads as though a woman dropped off a person sized cat in an alley.
For another, he has needlessly complicated the proceedings by creating a human sized world and a cat sized one that totally presents the same as the human sized one. Sure, it is a milk bar not a pub or whatever, but in terms of how it reads on-screen, there is no sense of distinction. Finally, he can’t hold the proportions solid across species. Jennyanydots uses mice and roaches in her number but the mice are so tiny as to seem insect sized and the roaches thus feel like gnats. Mice and bugs should seem bigger to cats than they do to us, not vice versa.
Choreography in CATS
Second, as noted above CATS has always been, in large part, a delivery system for dancing. Hooper repeatedly frames shots in a way the denies us the sight of the dancers’ footwork. Or he obscures it with people and objects moving through the foreground. He’s not punishing us with closeups as he did in LES MISERABLES. However, he still seems unwilling to trust the power of a watching a well-choreographed scene unfold.
The camera’s restlessness undercuts the action. It is impossible to appreciate the artistry because he won’t let us. When he cuts away from it or moves so tight as to reduce the characters to a bouncing torso, he denies the performers a chance to show off.
Related to this, the mix also appears off several times on the music. Derulo’s “The Rum Tum Tugger” is probably one of, if not the, most clever song in the film. However, Derulo’s vocals are so muddied in the mix that most won’t be able to hear it well enough to get that.
Not Going Far Enough
There are, by my count, between 2 and 4 cat puns in CATS. Swift’s character covers the entirety of the cast in catnip while she sings and dances leading to a what can only be described as a drug filled orgy. Except it lasts all of about 10 seconds. The psychosexual weirdness of CATS is front and center but too often Hooper breaks for an easy joke rather than live in that space.
In a strange way, it is all too little of the too much that makes CATS noteworthy. Give us the full cat orgy, make it weird and scary. It is supposed to be. It is literally a scene of a woman drugging an audience who then react with such lust that they can’t stop their leader from being kidnapped. Instead it is just sort of blah.
You want to show us cats being cats with all their lack of modesty? Ok, fine. But don’t saddle Wilson with it and then play it for laughs.
You want to have a character say, “Cat got your tongue”? Ugh. But also, great. Go full Mr. Freeze on the damn thing because otherwise that line sticks out like a sore thumb.
That’s A Wrap
Look, I am not a CATS fan. I wasn’t when I saw it on-stage, I wasn’t when I heard the music separate from the show. So I’m not the best judge here. I suspect CATS fans will like the movie and so I say to you, CATS fan, go see it.
That said, even beyond CATS bizarreness, the film fumbles more often than it scores. Hooper seems to be too self-conscious a director to let the movie just be the thing it is. It is a tone poem about cats set to Andrew Lloyd Webber music. It is all spectacle no plot. If you want to bring it to the silver screen, do that thing. Embrace its weirdness. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing it for?
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