Film Review – Cats
Tom Hooper’s Cats (2019) isn’t just one of the most bizarre musicals ever made, it’s one of the most bizarre films of recent memory, period. Everything about it is strange – from the story, to the characters, the music, the dancing, the special effects – there wasn’t a single artistic choice that didn’t leave me utterly baffled. It’s an adaptation of T.S. Elliott’s poetry and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage show. If the show is anything like the film version, I’m glad to have never seen it live. I came away utterly confused and disturbed from what I’ve witnessed. I almost want to recommend it just so you can see the nightmare fuel plastered all over the screen.
How does one even begin to review this? The story involves a group of Jellicle cats in London. What’s a “Jellicle” cat, you ask? I have no idea; the movie never explains it. The group gathers together in a yearly ceremony (or “Jellicle Ball” as it’s called) in which the wise Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses one lucky feline to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” and get reborn to a new Jellicle life.
Now hold on one gosh darn second. Let’s strip away the music, pageantry, and weird verbiage (“Jellicle” is mentioned no less than 500 times). What is this narrative really getting at? That a group of cats join in a yearly cult ritual where they sacrifice one of their own to a mysterious death? I understand that cats are supposed to have nine lives, but what’s the benefit in voluntarily losing one of those lives? Do they hope that they’ll be reincarnated into a better living situation? Are these cats unable to move up the social ladder on their own that they have to rely on blind faith for prosperity? What on Earth is going on here?
Tom Hooper and Lee Hall’s screenplay does nothing to explain things. The cats live in what is presumably a human world – with human buildings, furniture, streets, vehicles, etc. – but the entire city is devoid of human life. The narrative leaves no time for explanation, in fact it leaves no time for much else at all. There’s very little spoken dialogue, thus we don’t have enough time to get acquainted with who these characters are or why they partake in annual death rituals. Instead, we have a number of musical scenes strung together with cats vying to be chosen by Old Deuteronomy. And this is where things start to jump off the rails.
Each of the individual cats are constructed with no consistency between them. It’s as though each one exists within the rules of completely separate stories. Some cats are fully naked, yet others are dressed from head to toe. The cats Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden) sport top hats. Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) wears high heels and has glittered catnip. Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) has a troupe of mice that performs songs with her. And the villain Macavity (Idris Elba) somehow has the power to teleport himself wherever he so pleases. Our lead is Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who appears well adjusted for the most part, but she’s regulated to simply watching events swirl around her, sometimes breaking out in a dance routine to let us know of her impressive skillset.
Why wasn’t this an animated film? At least with animation, we are given some wiggle room to buy the absurdity of a make-believe world. But because this takes place in a realistic setting, we’re forced to confront how unusual and artificial everything looks. Seeing the performers twist and gyrate their bodies, licking themselves and rubbing up against one another adds an uncomfortable sexual undertone. And yet, even that element is contradicted given that all of these characters feature smooth bodies with no apparent reproductive organs. Which begs the question: how do these cats go to the bathroom? How do they have litters if they don’t have the needed body parts? Why am I compelled to ask these questions?
The direction and visual approach provides no flair or pizzazz to the musical sequences. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, and Hooper’s directorial choices don’t liven things up. Just as he did with Les Misérables (2012), Hooper is obsessed with holding fast on a performer’s face in close up. This works – to a degree – in capturing a character’s emotional state. But when you have a narrative that isn’t keeping an audience invested, simply sticking to a close up becomes a detriment instead of a benefit. When the lowly cat Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) sings the key song “Memory,” the moment is supposed to pluck our heartstrings. Instead, Hooper leaves Hudson on an island, forcing her to do all the heavy lifting while the camera sits back and remains static.
And now we’ve come to the elephant in the room – the CGI. The use of computer imagery to create fur like skin was a disastrous choice. It causes our eyes to notice the little inconsistencies between what is real and what is fake – it becomes a distraction. A real human face plastered against an artificial body creates an “Uncanny Valley” effect, where the overall look is more off putting than impressive. If real costumes were used, we could better accept it and settle into the story – the same way we can accept The Simpsons to not be an accurate representation of what actual people look like. But because we have these human faces, human hands, and human feet mixed with cat ears and fur, the result is a cringeworthy hybrid. It’s like we’ve landed on Dr. Moreau’s island with the mutated creatures running amok.
At the very least, I can say that I’ve never seen a movie quite like Cats. It is an oddity all to itself, a spectacular disaster in every sense of the term. It’s a drug-induced hallucination brought to life.