In 2016, you may remember the Barry Sonnenfeld film 'Nine Lives' (known in Australia as 'Mr Fuzzpants' for some reason), in which Kevin Spacey is turned into a cat and will only become human again when he learns how to be a good father (stay with me, I have a point). When he turns back into a human, he yells the words "Meow, that hurts!" - something that has stuck with me since 2016. Today, I finally have a use for "Meow, that hurts" with Tom Hooper's 'Cats'.
When Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is thrown out by her owner, she is whisked away by a tribe of Cats called the Jellicles. Tonight, they are making the Jellicle choice and deciding who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life.
The story of 'Cats' is boring, and it's only amplified by the film adaption. At least on stage you're watching real people dance in front of you, but here it's just bad CGI blobs (we will get to the CGI, don't you worry) filled with forgettable songs and boring characters. The film is formulaic: stumble across a new cat, they sing about who they are, we meet another cat, they sing about who they are, and it just goes on and on. We grow no attachment to anyone - not even Victoria, who is our eyes into the world - so the choice of who gets to ascend is not captivating as we simply do not care.
As a musical theatre lover, 'Cats' is always something I was aware of but never cared too much to explore it fully. I knew its impact on the Broadway world, inventing the mega-musical and making musical blockbusters a thing. The song 'Memories', the 80s outfits and the loose plot where about as much as my mind cared to learn about it, so I went in pretty blind. Well, I definitely see why 'Memoires' is the only memorable song as the rest is fine but forgettable. Even listening to the original recording, I just don't really care for the songs. 'Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats' and 'The Rum Tum Tugger' would be the standouts, but the movie lacks the creative energy to pull them off.
Let's knock out the big one - the CGI. You know it, I know it, I hope they know it, but it's horrifying. The choice they made was just the wrong one; I understand on stage it's skin-tight suits and this is a big budget movie, but god damn just make costumes or an animated film, not this! Problems that where amplified in the movie: some cats have skin-colour hands and feet while others have small amounts of fur over them, but the palms and soles are always human. The faces are the true nightmare, and I don't understand the decision to make some cats fully fur-covered and others a weird half-and-half. Taylor Swift's ('Valentine's Day', 'The Lorax') cat mouth is skin yet around her eyes and forehead is coved in fur, and in some scenes her face is literally floating off her body - it's detached. One nightmare-enduring thing that they've added is seeing mice and roaches in this film... who also have human faces. They are what true horror looks like. The bad CGI doesn't stop there, with Rebel Wilson's ('Pitch Perfect 3' franchise, 'How To Be Single') cat has a pink vest on that's been added in post, and there are moments where you can see it floating on her, and when it's a side profile they just didn't bother to animate it over the shoulder. Some cats still have their human eyebrows as well as cat hairs above them, and when Jennifer Hudson's ('Dreamgirls', 'The Three Stooges') cat sings 'Memories', they constantly disappear and re-appear depending on what side of her face we see. It's just a mess across the board.
To give some praise, they did build some really cool cat-to-human scale sets with big chairs and tables, but it's so wasted. Still, the scale in the film is all over the place - sometimes they look like tiny ants, other times a child. There is a wide shot of them dancing on a bridge, and it just looks like humans on a bridge. It's almost pointless to build all of these things since so much is just CGI anyway. The excessive CGI-ness of the film takes away from the "magic" of the dancing; sometimes the cats are so rubbery that it's pointless to have actors doing the choreography anyway.
Making them human-cat hybrids just messes with everything. They don't look like cats; they always look like a human licking themselves, which works on stage because the audience can physically see the humans in front of them and have an understanding that they are not literally cats, just representations of them. This is a movie: it works differently - and you failed.
A movie musical is such a hard sell. Tom Hooper is a terrible director of musicals - both 'Les Misérables' and 'Cats' fail in the most important way, and that's with their music. Hopper lacks a creative bone in his body; every dance number is stilted and static, and in its cinematography and editing it fails. There are huge dance numbers with sometimes what looks like fifty cats, and yet there is just nothingness across the screen. I could be kinder if at least the musical moments worked, but this is just another bland Hollywood musical that just lacks the understanding of why musicals work ('In the Heights', I'm rooting for you, I need you, I love you).
'Cats' is billing itself on its big cast and surprise surprise, they are all wasted. Idris Elba ('Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw', 'Zootopia') looks the most terrifying when he takes off his coat off with a weird nakedness to him that makes your eyes want to look away. He's probably trying the most character-wise, and it's just pointless. Judi Dench ('Murder on the Orient Express', 'Spectre') is sleepwalking her way through, expect for maybe the last song where she breaks the fourth wall and shows some joy. Ian McKellen ('X-Men: Days of Future Past', 'The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring' franchise) is really the only one who is trying to be a cat, but it's still just weird. Sure Jennifer Hudson can sing, but she is just so boring here - you can hear Tom Hooper saying, "Okay, belt out that note then please quickly run off set." Both Rebel Wilson and James Corden ('Ocean's 8', 'Begin Again') aren't as annoying as they can be, but every joke misses. Taylor Swift's appearance just feels like the studio going, "Are your happy, audience? Are you satisfied? Please enjoy our movie." Oddly enough, Mr Jason Derulo seems to be the only one aware of the garbage he's in and having some fun, with his dance number the most energetic with a charisma about him. He yells both "Milk!" and "Let's get the party started" and thinks he deserves an Academy Award.
Making them human-cat hybrids just messes with everything. They don't look like cats; they always look like a human licking themselves, which works on stage. This is a movie: it works differently - and you failed.
The question does lie: who is this for? You've alienated fans of the Broadway show by changing who sings what song, and you've insulted the whole internet with gross effects. Is it for your mum who saw 'Cats' once on a trip to New York and remembers nothing about it? Is it just Taylor Swift fans? With the end result, I don't actually know who this is for.
I was always excited for 'Cats', and to learn about it as a musical fan. The first trailer made me more excited, because seeing those god-awful effects only made me want to see it more. I always get excited for big-budget musicals because it means we could get more, but 'Cats' just fails on every level. It's a boring musical with forgettable songs and uninteresting choreography... and then it also fails as a bad film, since it offers no batshit fun. Poking fun at the CGI is all well and good, but you can do that from the trailer, so there's no point being bored for two hours during this holiday season.
Meow, that hurt indeed.