Cats, the original monster megamusical, must have been something to see when it opened in London in 1981. The cast in spandex unitards, legwarmers, and wigs, leaping and cartwheeling and performing fouettés around an oversized set that made the audience feel two feet tall. The soaring, Puccini-esque 11 o’clock number, “Memory,” that always brought the house down. The plot was (and still is) nonsense—it’s about a tribe of cats called the Jellicles who come together once a year for a ball in a junkyard to decide which one of them will be sent to the Heaviside Layer, a kind of feline hereafter, to be reborn. But the cats went into the audience. That was a big deal.
The London production of Cats ran for more than two decades, and the one on Broadway ran nearly as long. (The Japanese production, which opened in 1983, is still going and celebrated its 10,000th performance earlier this year.) It inaugurated an era of blockbuster shows that included another Andrew Lloyd Webber creation, The Phantom Of The Opera, as well as Les Misérables. It made millions and millions in tourist dollars every year and turned Broadway and West End musicals into theme-park attractions. And yet, out of all the shows to come out of that heyday of pure spectacle, Cats is the one that least lends itself to being turned into a movie.
It isn’t that the material is conceptually challenging. (This is Lloyd Webber we’re talking about, not Sondheim.) Rather, it’s that Cats is a musical that is largely meant to be held together by choreography, dancing, and stagecraft. On screen, the cats can’t go into the audience, and the alternative (having the audience go inside of a cat) has limited appeal. The obvious solution, which stalled in development in the 1990s, was to turn it into an animated film. Tom Hooper, who previously brought Les Misérables to the big screen, goes halfway there with his take on Cats: The cats are played by real humans (a mix of celebrities and world-class dancers), but with tails, ears, and feline coats of fur that have been digitally added in post-production. According to the film’s press materials, this process represents an astronomical leap forward in “digital fur technology.”
It is hard to think of another Hollywood film that has arrived under such an ignominious cloud of anti-hype. The first teaser, which appeared in July, was greeted with widespread mockery. The full trailer got a similarly disastrous reception. The special effects that were supposed to be the movie’s big attraction looked silly at best and hideous at worst. To many potential viewers, there is really only one question that matters about Cats: Do the cats in the movie really look as bad and distracting as they do in the trailer?
They do. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been sunk into making the cats in Cats look like hypertrichotic mutants from the Uncanny Valley Of Dr. Moreau, with tails and furry faces and hairless human fingers and toes. Their proportions in relation to the sets seem all wrong. (The stage show got around this problem by filling the set with slanted pieces of junk, instead of, say, having the cast dance around tables and doorways, as the film does.) What’s worse is that many of these effects appear unfinished, with noticeable differences in resolution and animation between principals and background characters and at least one instance in which a rendering error appears to have made it into the release version of the film.
Hooper, who co-wrote the script with Lee Hall, takes some liberties with the “story” of Lloyd Webber’s musical—which is perhaps understandable, as Cats is a show with no main character and one set. Instead of a present-day junkyard, the backdrop is now London circa the 1930s, with the signs around Piccadilly Circus replaced by cat puns. Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a largely non-singing role in the stage version, is our point-of-view character. Abandoned by her owner, she wanders into the world of Jellicles, who are getting ready to gather at an abandoned theater.
There, the leader of the Jellicles, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), will pick one deserving cat to go to the Heaviside Layer. On stage, this ascension is depicted with a staircase or some kind of UFO. In the film, the chosen feline rides away into the sky on a chandelier that is attached to a hot-air balloon, which does little to relieve the impression that what we are watching is basically a ritual sacrifice. But before that can happen, the cats of Cats must introduce themselves one by one in a series of musical numbers, which take up most of the movie. There is Bustopher Jones (James Corden), the fat cat who only eats from the trash cans of the finest restaurants; Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the black-and-white tuxedo cat who does magic tricks; Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the tragic cat who sings “Memory”; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the cat who presumably has sex with many other cats; the evil Macavity (Idris Elba); and so on and so on.
The lyrics of these songs were for the most part adapted from Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, a collection of whimsical poems by T.S. Eliot that was first published in 1939. Eliot, one of the luminaries of modernism, was extremely fond of all things feline; the description of the London smog in his masterpiece “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”) is notably catlike, for example. By the end of the film, however, one might find themselves wishing that he hadn’t written quite so many poems on the subject. Divorced from the context of live theater, most of the songs end up sounding mind-numbingly similar, though one can’t help but admire Hooper’s decision to preserve Lloyd Webber’s hopelessly dated synth arrangements. There is a new song with lyrics by Taylor Swift (who also plays a cat named Bombalurina), and it does not help matters.
Of course, Cats has always been ridiculous, just as it has always been ridiculed. (“Cats is a dog,” declared a notorious review of the musical’s Broadway debut.) But Hooper can’t even get camp right. He cuts the dance numbers (choreographed by Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler) into ribbons and covers them in digital fuzz, and directs “Memory” more or less the same way he directed “I Dreamed A Dream” in Les Misérables: handheld close-ups, lots of snot. While the original musical is sung-through, the film adds some spoken dialogue, as well as strained “ad libs” from Corden and Rebel Wilson, whose house cat Jennyanydots keeps hanging around in the background of scenes and saying things like “Look what the cat dragged in!” while rolling her eyes.
Only Ian McKellen emerges completely unscathed, giving a poignantly committed performance as Gus The Theatre Cat, an aging feline thespian who sings of his past glories. His eponymous musical number hints at a Cats that could have been—a Cats with a sense of humanity and irony. It helps that, unlike the rest of the cast, McKellen isn’t asked to contort himself into poses rarely seen outside of fetish art. Hooper and his visual effects team do not extend the same dignity to the 85-year-old Dench, who is at one point depicted stretching an unconvincing digital leg behind her head. The moment is the film in a nutshell: misguided in concept and a failure in execution.