In 1998, Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a Cats video special in which a live performance of the show was filmed. This was done, in part, because few thought the material would work as a Hollywood movie. They got it right the first time. So here we are with no need to split whiskers: Cats is a colossal failure. But a fascinating one. Attempting to make the cinematic out of something inherently stagebound, and a straightforward narrative from what was always just a collection of catchy melodies wrapped around witty but esoteric T.S. Eliot poems, this movie is one of the weirdest and most garish monstrosities to be birthed out of the Hollywood studio system in this century.
While the rest of the industry increasingly gravitates towards the safe and familiar, Universal—perhaps unwisely banking on just the popularity of the song “Memory”—has allowed Tom Hooper to reach miles beyond his grasp in this epic headscratcher. There is passion here, and love poured into the material, but it has produced a musical in which major screen and music talent, ranging from Dame Judi Dench to Taylor Swift, have been animated in ghastly computer-generated fuzz that for the most part looks photorealistic, yet also resembles the damned souls on The Island of Doctor Moreau. Further, there are new additions not in the original stage show, such as when we are introduced to anthropomorphic mice, acting as Rebel Wilson’s own personal Dixie band, and Rockette-styled cockroaches who serve as her backup dancers. It is like a nesting doll of bad decisions buried within catastrophic ones.
Perhaps the most unwise choice, however, is to make an alleged plot out of Cats. Again the appeal of the original stage show was a cast of actors made up to look like cats (or at least performers in elaborate catlike costumes), and Webber’s often gorgeous music accompanying prose from poet T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. If the show felt like a random series of vignettes that is because it was, with the plight of one lonely and fallen glamour puss, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), giving a melancholic heart to the absurdity. Beyond the intimacy of stage inviting audiences to think more abstractly about performances than film, it is this lack of narrative that always made Cats appear unfilmable, at least as a Hollywood extravaganza.
It still appears so, even though we now have a story in which the newly invented feline character of Victoria (Francesca Hayward) has been abandoned by her owners on the night of the Jellicle Ball. This is an evening of mischief in which one Jellicle Cat is allowed to be reincarnated into a new life. What is a Jellicle Cat you might ask? That’s a good question, and Cats the movie tries desperately to insert rational explanations into Eliot’s rhyming nonsense, but it doesn’t matter.
Victoria is there to act as our eyes and ears, becoming more an avatar for the audience than a character, and to meet all of the Jellicle Cats as they vie for the chance to be granted a new life. There is also a major (and leaden) plot addition as Idris Elba’s Macavity becomes the film’s antagonist, kidnapping the other cats one by one so that he will be the only choice left for reincarnation (poor Elba also fares the worst here, being asked to hiss “meow” at one point while dancing in magical fairy dust). Thus it is up to Victoria and her new Jelicle buddies to stop Macavity and create pace-killing filler between songs.
The irony about the soon-to-be legendary misfire of Cats is that there are quality aspects here. Chief among them is the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehle, who puts emphasis on dancers’ bodies. Not since the days of Bob Fosse has a movie musical focused so much on the language of movement. Whereas most other musicals cast movie stars who can learn a few taps here and there (of which Cats is not innocent), it is a credit to Hooper he placed Hayward, a Royal Ballet ballerina, in the lead. On the script page the character is meaningless, but whenever Victoria is taking center stage in a dance scene, it is riveting. She and several of the other performers don’t save the movie, but like the band playing as the Titanic sinks, they put on a hell of a show.
The other grace notes include “Memory,” which is still a haunting power ballad in Hudson’s hands and despite Hooper’s tacky attempt to repeat Anne Hathaway’s Oscar win in Les Miserables via extreme close-up of her crying. But more effective still is Ian McKellen. At 80 years of age, McKellen looks frail and faintly miserable underneath all the CG and makeup, but he alone can so captivatingly command the nauseating glitz around him that you forget the artifice, or the mutant ears growing out of his head. He is Gus, the Theater Cat, and he will break your heart.
But really, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. While there are a number of elements that work about Cats, the material refuses to bend to cinematic concerns, at least in Hooper’s insipid interpretation. The director who made Les Miserables’ story of revolution and tragedy a bit twee has the humorless idea of grounding the wackiness of Cats in sets built to scale, so the actors are cat-sized while standing on tables; and of course there is that “digital fur technology,” which stands as a monument to the lack of imagination in the digital age.
If one squints, the material could almost work as something more avant-garde or ludicrous—a midnight movie musical stoners would covet. But rather than embracing the surreal, the images of these wonderful dancers become grotesque and laughable when they’re twitching their CG-tails. And instead of accepting this as plotless material, the film inserts a hackish storyline and even more hackneyed cat puns, especially whenever Wilson and James Corden are onscreen—taking all the fun out of writing them for critics.
While this is, refreshingly, an artistic gamble that simply went disastrously wrong, there is an audience for something so unintentionally camp. Especially as it remains rooted in a theatricality as pure as the aspirations of your high school drama club. But if you were ever wary of spending time with the drama club, a screening of Cats may feel like crossing the threshold of hell.
Cats opens on Friday, Dec. 20.