In the movie (and presumably play, but I’ve never seen it) “Six Degrees of Separation,” a con man claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and that Poitier is working on a film version of “Cats.” The explanation of the “Cats” movie (or the portion with which I’m concerned) goes something like – in discussing the reasons that a “Cats” film couldn’t be done, Poitier figured out how to do it.
Director Tom Hooper should have talked to this con man’s fictionalized version of Poitier. Despite Hooper’s “Cats” opening on big screens this week, Hooper didn’t figure out how to make it work. This is a movie absolutely destined to go down as a cult classic, with a group of folks screaming from the top of their lungs about how it’s simply misunderstood. I foresee midnight showings, audience response lines, perhaps even a floor show.
As for the rest of us—by which I mean the vast majority of the movie-going public—”Cats” is virtually certain to go down as an ill-conceived idea which has been poorly executed. Although they aren’t always right, the public will be this time. With a screenplay by Lee Hall and Hooper, and based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical take on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, “Cats” is better left out on the front stoop.
Without meaning to be harsh or cruel, one isn’t quite even sure where to begin with one’s critique. The mystifyingly weird, poorly explained story? The off-putting sets? The distractingly bad CG (why do the cats have human hands and human feet and sometimes wear human clothes despite being cat-sized)? The choices abound and at some point it becomes too much to examine without it feeling as though one has set out to destroy the venture.
So, let us truly focus on the most important bit of it all – the incredibly celebrated cast. The lead maybe the virtually-unknown-in-the-world-of-film-as-this-is-her-debut-and-she’s-in-the-Royal-Ballet Francesca Hayward, but she is surrounded by the likes of Judi Dench, Idris Elba, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, and Taylor Swift. The basic idea, more or less, is that each of these people can come in, do a song or two, and then disappear again. It makes for a star-studded celebration but results in an interesting problem: most of these actors are in their own movie, offering wildly discordant takes.
If one wants to find the actors most in tune, it is Wilson and Corden who offer their usual, shticky brand of humor. No stretching for either here, just very broad takes. Hudson is in full fallen diva mode, a cat down her luck once she sided with the bad guy. It is dramatic to the point of distraction, while that bad guy, played by Elba, is their strictly for an entirely different sort of laugh than Corden and Wilson. Dench looks like she is well aware that she is slumming it and just trying to get through after regretting to do the movie, and McKellen… well that’s the hardest one to contemplate. Ian McKellen, an actor who is able to do drama and comedy; high brow art, low brow art, and everything in between; he actually seems to being trying to portray a cat. The number of little cat-like movements from him (scratching and licking and the like) is astounding, particularly coming into the story as late as he does and with no one else having approached the material in that way before. It is crushing to watch, as one desperately wishes someone had told him that while every actor in the movie is doing something different, his honest yearning may be the most authentic but consequently works the least well. It is, in fact, infuriating that no one stopped him, and it blurs the lines between the doddering cat he is portraying and reality in terribly unsettling ways.
Briefly mentioned above is the “distractingly bad CG” and it truly is that. It is also inconsistent. Hudson’s cat may be the most fully realized with the best integration between the actress’s face and the graphical enhancement, while Hayward’s is the worst. Perhaps we just see it for the longest period of time, but it doesn’t work, with human-esque features bursting forth from a clearly digitized body. It is of a piece with the sets and overall look of the film, but achieving a flow in this particular way is not something to be lauded as the other element doesn’t work either.
As all of the above is playing out, Hooper’s camera feels as though it is constantly moving from one thing to the next, cutting quickly and more than once offering up unique camera angles. This further diminishes the whole affair. The film is meant to transport the audience to the world of these cats (and I would say “jellicles,” but even after the movie I have no idea what a “jellicle cat” is), but the camera work and editing don’t give the audience a great view of what’s happening and where. It feels as though it is all an attempt to hide the graphic work – if we don’t see something long enough, maybe we won’t recognize that there’s a problem. It is another thing at which the movie is unsuccessful.
Having grown up in the 1980s, one walks away from “Cats” with the impression that it is all like one of Michael Jackson’s big TV special music video things gone horribly awry. From the sets to the dancing to star cameos to the weird sexual moments, it’s all there. You wish it wasn’t, but it is, and you’ll never unsee it.
photo credit: Universal Studios