Dir: Tom Hooper. Cast: Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson. U cert, 110 mins
Cats is destined to go down in glorious infamy. It’s one of those rare cinematic events that feels like a collective hallucination – improbable and entirely indescribable. What can you say when faced with Sir Ian McKellen, CGI-ed into a cat-person body, gingerly licking milk out of a bowl? How do you react to Idris Elba throwing off his coat to reveal a set of rippling cat abs? What do you do when Taylor Swift starts shaking her cat boobs, while sprinkling catnip into an enraptured crowd? The big-screen adaptation of the musical Cats cannot be tamed. You strap in, you experience it, and then you live with the memories.
It’s arguably a little unfair to put this down to a failure in filmmaking. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original stage musical, which debuted in 1981, is as weird as they come. Adapted from TS Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it has a non-existent plot in which a series of cats – with names like Rum Tum Tugger and Mr Mistoffelees – introduce themselves, before one of their number is chosen to ascend to something called the Heaviside Layer. It’s unclear whether this means heaven, outer space or total annihilation.
On stage, the actors wear skin-tight leotards and painted-on stripes, noses and whiskers. It looks odd and dorky, like when someone turns up to a Halloween party having put in way more effort than everyone else. But Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for technological advancement means that Cats goes one step further, employing “digital fur technology” to create mutant feline-human hybrids. And while the effect of “uncanny valley” in films using heavy CGI usually wears off after a good half hour or so (take The Irishman’s digital de-aging), the cats in Cats are uncomfortable to look at from start to finish.
It’s not helped by the fact that some of them are given clothes, making you only more aware of the fact that these cat-people are naked and smooth like Barbie and Ken dolls. Skimbleshanks wears trousers, shoes and braces – but no shirt. Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots reveals a zipper on her chest, pulls it down, and then proceeds to shed an entire layer of her skin, revealing more cat fur and a tap dance outfit underneath.
Director Tom Hooper seems to have fully condoned and, possibly, even actively desired the chaos of Cats. Every one of his directorial choices – such as using the same Steadicam and vertiginous angles of his 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables – seems tailor-made for maximum disorientation.
There are breakdancing felines that, when rendered in CGI, seem to lose the stiffness in their joints and turn into undulating tubes of cat meat. The few scenes of spoken dialogue are frequently interrupted by the tiny pitter-patter of cat-people feet shuffling in the background. There are cats shoved in every corner of each frame, crawling and writhing around.
It certainly stays faithful to the original show’s off-putting sexual energy, as infamously exemplified by Rum Tum Tugger, here played by Jason Derulo. That said, the musician finds charm in the role and walks away as one of the film’s few genuine highlights. McKellen and Judi Dench, both playing stately elder cats, also manage to work the balance between feline habits and human pathos with the ease of seasoned professionals. Swift, however, doesn’t even attempt a cat impression. She’s her same-old self parachuted in to offer her usual shtick.
In fact, Cats loses some of its delirious sparkle whenever we’re reminded of who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. Both Wilson and James Corden are carted in to deliver a few of their standard punchlines, but their asides feel too ironic and out of place for this world (at one point, Wilson asks whether Rum Tum Tugger’s been neutered, since he can hit so many high notes).
The new addition to the soundtrack, “Beautiful Ghosts”, written by Swift and Lloyd Webber, is instantly forgettable. Most frustratingly, it manages to yank the spotlight away from the genuine centrepiece of Cats: “Memory”, sung here by Jennifer Hudson. In another world, Hudson – like Anne Hathaway as Fantine before her – might have won an Oscar for her raw, snot-drenched performance, as the camera hovers as close to her face as possible. It would be beautiful, if only the whiskers sprouting out of her face weren’t so distracting.
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