First I’m a fan of the musical on stage, it being a flight of fancy with some absorbing songs and great choreography.
Secondly is that, obviously, I’d heard a lot of the criticism that was being levelled at the film, including, but not limited to, the fact that an updated version had been sent out to cinemas and that the studio had essentially removed it from Academy Awards contention after the critical battering it had received.
Given these two things I went in with as open a mind as possible and, as we are dropped onto the streets of a non-specifically post-Victorian London (that really doesn’t look or sound much like London) along with (the extensively overhauled compared to her stage version) cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) the fantastical approach seemed to fit as we were introduced to the ‘Jellicle Cats’ of the city streets.
Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the wheels really started to come off.
The first thing that struck me was the design of the characters, clearly taking inspiration from the body suits and make up approach of the stage version, Hooper and co have modernised this by rendering their cats as computer generated human cat hybrids with human limbs and faces but the tails, fur and ears of cats.
While the optimist in me would still argue that, theoretically, this could work, from the off it fails as the human elements often seem disconnected from the computer generated elements with not only the ‘cats’ seeming to float off the ground at points as you might expect in a budget video game but even the faces not seeming entirely attached to their own heads, particularly during any fast moves in close ups. While at other points the ‘cats’ look insectoid and, in the way they creep, almost like the Xenomorph in the Alien films.
This also makes it hard to know where the real dancing ends and computer animated sections begin which is a great shame as, I’m assuming, some great dancers were involved here but their work is entirely undermined,
Being based on a series of disconnected poems by TS Elliot the plot of the stage version is, famously, ‘loose’ so here writers Hooper and Lee Hall have tried their best to give it a slightly more conventional form.
To do this the aforementioned Victoria seems to act as the audience’s route into the world of the Jellicle Cats while the broader story concerns some of the older cats making their case to cat leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to be selected to go to the Heaviside Layer (somewhere never explained in past versions but it seems here like some kind of deeply troubling ritual sacrifice/suicide by hot air balloon) while Macavity (Idris Elba), the evil cat, attempts to kidnap the nominees and take their place.
For several reasons, largely based around the original format, neither of these narrative devices really work as the language of Jellicle Cats making Jellicle Choices at the Jellicle Ball is never adequately explained or expressed to become something worth investing in as an audience while the aforementioned computer generated effects make the characters so alien looking you just can’t empathise with them in the way needed to become invested in the story.
On top of all this a series of stunt cast guest stars, including James Corden as Bustopher Jones and Rebel Wilson Jennyanydots, who’s roles are expanded to be shoehorned into this attempted plot just hamper things further and on several occasions detract from the choreography that, otherwise, is really the film’s highest point (even if that is a relative high).
While the choreography is generally very good, with some elements clearly borrowed from the stage and some restaged entirely with the ability to have a wider range of settings, the way it is shot lets it down time and again as Hooper and the visual effects manage to suck the life and energy out of pretty much everything with even Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) and Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) falling flat and really only Skimblemshanks’ (Steve McRae) tap dancing and Bombalurina’s (Taylor Swift) rendition of Macavity The Mystery Cat managing to survive the transition process.
A few of the performances seem like they could be very good, if they weren’t encumbered with the visual effects; notably Ian McKellen’s Gus The Theatre Cat and Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella, along with Elba doing his best attempt at villainous hamming it up, but even these just get lost and fall a little too flat.
With a climax where Dench’s Old Deuteronomy suddenly breaks the fourth, wall taking a film that was already jumping the shark even further behind the pale (though a few of the lines here did raise about the only positive response from the audience in the cinema where I saw the film, but these are Elliot’s words and nothing to do with the film), Cats is a failure.
I’d say thought it’s an admirable one that tries to do something different and interesting but ultimately falls foul of its own inherent issues and never manages to escape the uncanny valley of its own design rendering Cats a film that will likely become a curio of how a blockbuster can go genuinely wrong and becoming something that’s just downright weird to behold.