I guess its best that I’m up front as I begin this review. I’m a theatre nerd who’s never been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I also have a bias against Cats from the get go. In elementary school my music teacher had three videotapes that students got to watch when there was a substitute teacher. One of them was the 1998 recording of the Broadway production of Cats. I have seen this more than a few times… and I can say that I am not a fan. So why did I decide to take in a screening of the latest adaption? Two reasons: One, the talents of a great director and veteran actors all of whom I have great admiration for. Two, the trailers and reviews painted a pretty bleak picture of the final product. So let us forego the feline puns and dig into this odd cinematic journey.
“It’s party time!”
Stringing together a collection of poems by the legendary T.S. Eliot created the threadbare plot for Webber’s play. I could try to explain the nuts and bolts of this whole thing, but it’s a fool’s errand. Cats sing, dance, do cat things, hope to be reborn, and say ‘jellicle’ way too much. There’s a whole lot of filler and weird shit in between musical numbers as well. I wish I could talk more, but one of my biggest points of contention with this story is the lack of substance. Some may be able to overlook or ignore such a problem, but not me. All these years later I still think the story is junk. That’s my two cents, so moving on.
It is undeniable that Tom Hooper is a great director. He built his career on some fantastic historical dramas and even his adaptation of Les Miserables was fairly decent. Here it feels like either Hooper was too much of a fan of the source material not enough of a fan. I find some of the choices he made oddly puzzling. Aside from the use of CGI (we’ll get to that) there are numerous musical numbers that feel surprisingly boring. I really wish he’d gone for broke and made the visuals something closer to an acid trip rather than a weird European children’s show.
“Don’t mess with the crazy cat-lady!”
One of the few redeeming qualities of the stage production is the makeup and costume design. This is why I really think the use of CGI to ‘catify’ the cast was a mistake. I know the defense the production crew gave for this choice was to allow the performers more freedom in dance numbers. This makes me wonder if actors on-stage can handle those constraints on a nightly basis and give a solid performance how could such a thing not occur on a tightly controlled film set? I personally believe that the filmmakers thought using CGI would be ‘revolutionary’ and make the film a shoe-in for Best Visual Effects at the 2020 Oscars. Boy was that an overestimation.
This brings us to the next critical piece of the film, the cast. With a combination of talented actors and talented singers there is some merit here. I have to give Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Idris Elba credit for bringing some gravitas to this film. It’s a shame that their performances get covered up by a whole lot of CGI messiness. With the singing talent like Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, and stage actress Francesca Hayward there are great vocals, but aside from the overly sung “Memory” none of the soundtrack is all that memorable. Even Webber’s new tune crafted with Swift specifically for the film is pretty bland. All of these hard working thespians feel like they’re adrift in a sea of average spectacle.
“I judge a cat by its soul.”
Everyone has been panning this film, so none of this should come as a surprise. From the get go adapting Cats into a film was always going to be a risk. Add in all the drawbacks and fiascoes that can plague a film production and the outlook was bleak. I didn’t think it was possible for me to dislike Cats more than I already did. This movie reminded me, nothing is impossible.
Overall Score 1.5/5