You must witness the hubris of director Tom Hooper. You must witness the hubris of Hollywood. The hubris of these performers. You have to sit in that theatre and view this fur-festooned thing so that years from now you might heroically say that you were there. You saw it in its infancy before it became a cult oddity like another bizarre and inept, but thoroughly watchable, feline-centric film: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.
Cats defies belief because it exists and yet at every turn, it is very obvious that Cats should not exist.
The plot of Cats isn’t necessarily important. When Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted T.S. Eliot’s book of poems in 1981 he wasn’t trying to create a narratively complex musical. He was just making an experience—all dance and Spandex and discordant crooning. Everything you need to know is in the opening number when the cats explain that there will be a Jellicle Ball and old Deuteronomy will choose one cat to ascend to a higher plane of existence.
Cats the movie, penned by Lee Hall and Hooper, helpfully reiterates this in a new scene between two characters, just in case the digital fur and all the cavorting distracts you from the plot. The narrative crux of the story comes partly from the preconceived notions of the cats (there’s a whole lot of slut-shaming revolving around why the cats all hate Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella), but mainly from the machinations of Idris Elba’s Macavity, who saunters in periodically to magically disappear competitors for his desired slot heavenside (another name for the Jellicle cats’ higher plane of existence).
Director Tom Hopper is a lot like Macavity—disappearing actors when the whim strikes him and replacing them with digital golems who move and interact with the set in a way that’s not quite right. Often times a beautiful and very real sequence of dance will be interrupted by a digital character flinging themselves across the screen in the jittery way of unfinished animation. They’ll land softly like they’ve been learning wirework from a Hong Kong stunt director. But it’s not just the way the real and the digital combat each other in the same scenes (and usually in the same body), it’s the way the shit’s just not finished.
I witnessed an entire man, knit cap and coat, just standing in a scene among a gathering of cats. I saw a terrifying grey statue looming over a character, only for it to blink and realise it’s a woman who is a cat, but they coloured her and then forgot to add fur. In one scene, nearly all of Judi Dench’s hand is a fluffy blond like her the coat of her cat character, Deuteronomy. In another, it’s just her regular hand, replete with what appears to be a wedding ring. Most cats have human feet, but some cats wear shoes. Except for newcomer Francesca Hayward, a ballerina who does a long and gorgeous dance number on pointe.
It’s a beautiful skill and the kind of thing you’d normally need to pay to see in a theatre. Here you see it for the price of a single movie ticket! But they CGI’d out her ballet shoes and gave her digital toes that skitter weightlessly across the floor, engendering a powerful feeling as wrong as that Pixar baby 30 years ago.
The fur breasts that distracted us in the trailers are at least subdued. Everyone’s digitally androgynous, as if baby’s first Photoshopper had a little too much fun with the smoothing tool, though some are smoother than others. Hayward’s Victoria has thick fur, and Dench’s Deuteronomy is quite fluffy, but Elba’s Macavity is so sleek you can see the actor’s own clear musculature just below the surface, creating an unnerving window into a Thundercats future.
I thought I could get past the digital fur and shapeless, sexless forms to just enjoy Cats. As Hayward tears her way out of a pillowcase and finds herself in a junkyard of Jellicle cats come out to play I was sure—positive—that I could experience Cats the movie like Cats the musical and just let the weirdness wash over me, allowing the songs and dancing to entertain.
Hayward and Robbie Fairchild, who plays the narrator Munkostrap, are so talented as dancers and singers that I was positive I could forget the bad effects and creepy looks. (I survived and even loved Alita, didn’t I??) The cast is clearly deeply invested and having a great time in the film—like those theatre kids who got a little culty in high school, only professional dancers and wealthy entertainers. Then Rebel Wilson unzipped herself and stepped out of her fursuit and proceeded to consume hundreds of tiny human/cockroach composites she trained to dance for her amusement.
There’s no coming back from that.
Fans of the musical version of Cats will love and hate the film. The significant changes to characterizations (Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina changes from a co-lead in the stage version to an evil, one-scene temptress who drugs the whole cast and steals Dench’s Deuteronomy away to a boat) and the weird attempts at tacking a plot onto the plotless bones of the musical might give a fan pause.
The dancing and singing will appeal to them once more. The over-the-top pageantry will allow some to forgive the many ample issues. Like how Hopper completely ruins “Memory” with a bad mix that finds Jennifer Hudson’s vocals drowned out by the orchestra. It’s no surprise, much like his hack job of “On My Own” in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables, he messed with the iconic Cats tune by using distracting camera work and weird cuts.
Does it matter? Nothing does after that first fateful decision to dress the finest collection of dancers gathered this decade in digital fur. Hopper has all but ruined Cats, but perhaps Cats was ruined long before he thought this pure stage show should be adapted to film. Perhaps Cats never was and always is. Perhaps Cats is beyond us, transcending good taste and bad to exist in a world of pure and unadulterated spectacle.
You have to witness Cats because you cannot comprehend it otherwise. And you still might not comprehend it even after you spend an hour and 50 minutes with these characters. But you will witness things no eyes should see and things nobody should be able to do, and you will be in awe. And that’s more than enough.
Cats pounces into theatres December 26.