Tom Hooper’s queasy visuals and artistic oversight undo one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s more charming musicals.
I greatly admire Cats as a musical. I grew up with it. And I respect anyone who’s willing to dance night after night in a skin-tight animal outfit. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I don’t quite know what to make of it. No dramatic presentation of a musical like Cats could ever be considered “normal”. These are cats that look like humans, or rather humans that look like cats, choreographed to leap and twirl and occasionally behave like cats. But this movie is a uniquely unusual experience, not always in a fashion that is pleasant.
The most glaring issue is the CGI, which the movie seems to have bathed in. The result is not so much disappointing as distracting. The trailer for the movie received some hefty popular backlash on YouTube for the creepy digital effects on all the characters’ faces. The movie does nothing to improve matters. In fact, it compounds them, not least because in addition to the creepy felines, the same effects are applied to several mice and a whole contingent of dancing cockroaches. Yes, cockroaches. It doesn’t help that several of them are devoured by Rebel Wilson.
All this might’ve been easier to stomach if the effects had been seamless. Sadly, the CGI is so consistently inconsistent it draws unwanted attention to itself. It’s a movie whose visuals look frail on the surface then threaten to crumble spectacularly upon closer inspection. I suspect, if you go in to Cats without already possessing an affinity for the material, you might be so put off by the artificial appearance and bizarre movements of the cats that you might consider walking out before the first song has had its chance to be sung.
The plot, such as it is, is based on a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot. A young white cat, Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer for the Royal Ballet in her first feature-length film), has been thrown out amongst the trash in a London alley, only to be salvaged by a tribe of “Jellicle” cats all vying to be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) for a new life, while the sinister Macavity (Idris Elba) schemes to ascend himself. What’s a Jellicle cat? There are songs that explain it, but their choruses are so difficult to discern you’d be better off reading the original poems.
All this adds up to a movie I seem to have not enjoyed very much. I hold some of the older renditions of the musical too close to my heart. This Cats is too digital and visually unsettling to really stack up. Tom Hooper, who committed musical suicide with Les Misérables (2012) by casting an actor who couldn’t sing, does it again by incidentally drawing focus away from the things that matter. Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s score holds up gallantly, and there are pockets of delightful moments that reminded me of the material’s potential. If you can look through the strangeness, you’d have a good time. Unfortunately, the strangeness is stubbornly impenetrable.
Cats is available in Australian cinemas from December 26 2019
Image © Universal Pictures 2019