Movies like Cats are rare: cinema so out there, so indescribable, so far beyond what you expected that it’s a challenge to review.
As a child, I saw Cats during its original Canadian stage run in the mid-late 1980s. To be completely transparent, I saw it twice. Back then it was new, fresh and captivating; the makeup and costuming were superb. The songs were catchy, even earworm-y.
I’m sad to report that the movie iteration is nothing like the original stage musical. Perhaps destined to become a cult hit (like Showgirls or Rocky Horror Picture Show before it), Cats is an exercise in incredulity and disbelief.
That bad, huh?
To be fair, die-hard fans of Cats will probably enjoy this iteration far more than the layperson, but to someone unfamiliar with the musical and its loose plot, it’s a lot to take in.
Based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Cats is meant to be a series of vignettes about different cats in the city, each with their own backstory and personality. I’m not sure what happened in transition from stage to screen, but this end product is as amateur as an elementary school play, and just as slow.
Somehow, Cats manages to be simultaneously dull and shocking. It’s a feat that’s hard to accomplish in movies. One minute you’re yawning and checking your watch, then suddenly James Corden or Idris Elba prances around on screen in full cat costume, your jaw drops, and you forget all about the time. It was nearly two hours of this fluctuation. At one point I realized my mouth was agape for a good 20 minutes.
What’s so shocking about this movie?
It’s not the plodding subject matter, nor is it the flimsy acting or singing — it’s the sheer spectacle of it all. Every scene is a new level of awkwardness, especially when it comes to actors of Judi Dench’s and Ian McKellan’s stature. It’s a real mystery how either of them ended up here, and seeing them faux-lick their paws or hear them emit a human hiss makes you feel sorry for them.
Not to mention all the strange set pieces and bizarre visual effects, which make the movie feel like a drug trip. One reviewer jokingly suggested seeing Cats on hallucinogens, but that would be like looking at tie-dye through a kaleidoscope: far too much.
About those costumes…
All the things you’ve seen and heard are true. The costumes are disconcerting, all genitals have been erased (thank heavens), the actors’ movements come across as unnatural and jerky, and director Tom Hooper seems to have insisted the human-cats behave like actual cats. So there are many awkward moments when human-cats nuzzle noses, but it looks like they’re going in for a full French kiss. Imagine that with Dench, and there you go.
Rumour has it that Hooper finished this movie just last week, and it shows. There are weird CGI effects, and in many scenes it appears as if the cats are floating — their feet (yes FEET, not paws) don’t touch the ground. There are tech flaws aplenty, enough to the point that it’s very distracting. Even at times when you want to appreciate the music, you can’t because the flicking tail or the ears keep your attention.
Surely the music is OK?
You’d think so, but unfortunately even that falls flat. Taylor Swift is in the movie for five minutes for her underwhelming number, and even Jennifer Hudson’s Memory is over-emotive and doesn’t have that same punch. In the musical, singers would stand onstage and deliver; here, actors awkwardly stand in place with stationary camera. It’s dull.
The only time things liven up is when the actors start to dance as an ensemble, but even that comes across as stiff and wooden. This is an an example of too much CGI. A comment I overheard on the way out of the theatre: “I really didn’t like those tails.”
So what’s the bottom line?
The movie’s objectively short running time is Cats‘ saving grace. Coming in at just under two hours, it’s enough time to contemplate the incomplete effects, the jarring cinematography, the nonsensical plot, the stilted performances and the feeling that something went horribly, horribly wrong during production.
Cats runs out of lives a mere 20 minutes in, and the only possibility of new life for this movie is in revue theatres or as a case example of how not to translate stage to screen.
‘Cats’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.