The long-running musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, an anthology of delightful poems by T.S. Eliot, worked on the stage because the cast was wearing theatrical makeup, spandex bodysuits and, having been conceived in the early eighties, legwarmers. No one expected the actors to look like real cats but they moved like cats. The musical has a threadbare plot but somehow it doesn’t matter because humans pretending to be singing and dancing cats is an illusion that can be sustained in the physical make-believe of the wooden stage.
Whose idea was it to transfer it to the screen literally with CGI? It is known since the days of King Kong, made in 1933, that if movies are to be fantastical, they need to look realistic, otherwise the illusion doesn’t work. This is why outer space in sci-fi movies looks like actual space, and spacecraft looks like it could fly and you could be in it. With the exception of Chewbacca, who is clearly a guy in a gorilla suit, creatures need to look real. Hence, Dame Judi Dench coated in digital fur and whiskers, looking like a Teletubby that walked into an exploding hair salon, is not gonna cut it.
Bizarre does not even begin to describe it. The resulting CGI salad is one of human faces but feline ears, furry human bodies complete with non-furry human hands and feet, and distracting CGI tails, not to speak of some female cats having boobies and others not. None of them, however, male or female, have the organs that make living beings reproduce. Then Taylor Swift shows up wearing shoes. Some people have complained about the dancing cockroaches with human faces. I didn't mind them, but the shoes made my brain explode. Why is she wearing shoes?
Cats the movie is what my friend Orlando Leal calls “an inventicide”: a suicidal invention. A terrible idea that everybody knows is bad from the beginning but it somehow gets greenlit, then it’s too late to walk it back, leaving everyone no choice but to die on that hill trying to save it while heaping on the incongruities. Tom Hooper, a director who does not grasp the concept of wit, elegance or restraint, nor where to place a camera in musicals, is the worst man for the job. As I was being attacked by the movie’s plodding incoherence, I amused myself by imagining David Fincher getting a stab at directing Cats. This is how much I pined for a cool head with a sense of style.
Hooper doesn’t understand the first thing about the material. He doesn’t understand that Eliot’s verse is witty, sophisticated and delightful. He doesn’t understand that cats aren’t clumsy or vulgar creatures, yet there is scene after scene of cats behaving like pigs. Have you ever seen a cat being a slob? Even when they scavenge they are stylish. There is no need to add crass humor to Eliot’s verse, but Hooper and his screenwriter Lee Hall heap on the vulgarity, dumbing down the material. The production design is garish and ugly and the scale between the cats’ sizes and the scenery is bizarre and distracting. The musical numbers could be more imaginative. Because of disjointed, dizzying camera work, a string of close-ups and long shots where the camera is always either too close or too far, it is impossible to enjoy whatever dancing there is. There is no sense of magic, delight or wonder. Despite some very talented performers like Jason De Rulo and Francesca Hayward singing and dancing their hearts out, nothing lands.
As I sat there feeling numb, I thought that Cats would do well with completely different staging. Imagine it with the droll touch of Wes Anderson: a stop-motion version with animated cats a la Fantastic Mr. Fox or Isle of Dogs would be closer to the spirit of Eliot’s verses. Someone with the deft humor and light touch of Taika Waititi could truly refresh the play. Or they could have done a meta version a la Uncle Vanya on 42 Street, or Dogville, set on a stage. Instead, we get a jumble of lavish incompetence that is not even at the level of bad cult movies like The Room or Plan 9 from Outer Space. The definition of kitsch is “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way”. At my screening, some people were trying hard to laugh at the screen, but it felt forced. Cats doesn’t even rise to this level.
And there is no excuse because lots of money and talent are involved. I was amazed at the professionalism and chops of actors like Idris Elba (meow), Ian McKellen, la Dench, the charming James Corden, who show up and deliver, only to be saddled by a ridiculous production that makes you feel sorry for all of them. Still, no matter how hard Tom Hooper tries to achieve this, Judi Dench is constitutionally incapable of losing her dignity. McKellen hams it up as Gus, The Theatre Cat. He is phenomenal. Taylor Swift acquits herself well as Bombalurina (although she’s not brassy enough for her number), but the same cannot be said of Rebel Wilson, who is given humiliating material and does not contain her mugging, or Jennifer Hudson (too brassy for her number) who should have resisted delivering the director’s trademark: dripping snot.
Aaron Sorkin quotes a story about Maria Callas giving a master class to a singer who was performing an aria while crying copiously. Callas stopped her, slapped her, and said: “We’re the ones who are supposed to cry, not you”. Both this advice and the slap would come in handy to Tom Hooper, a director who never saw snot he didn’t like. He has Jennifer Hudson sing the showstopper «Memory» with mucus running down her nose, as he did with Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, which idiotically garnered her an Oscar in one of the worst movies ever made. The snot stops the show alright since you can’t focus on anything else. The filmed version of Cats is better than the one of Les Miserables only because the material is exponentially better than that corny horror of a musical.
As you may have surmised, I like the songs of Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a gift for show tunes and the Eliot verses are truly lovely. I must confess I saw the stage production twice, the original in London, which wowed me back in the day, and the first one on Broadway. I saw Betty Buckley utterly stop the show when she sang “Memory”, a terrible song that works. She was not a pathetic cat. She held on to her pride.