Given that the lauded stage-show was never a production driven by a narrative, Hollywood really should have taken note from any of the live footage produced from the Andrew Lloyd Webber show and seen that Cats is not something easily transferable to a plot-based film.
A colossal failure, though undeniably fascinating in that train-wreck manner, Cats is one of the most nightmarish productions to be birthed from the Hollywood system in years, if not this century. The show was a bizarre concept – even when it was working – and was really little more than catchy song-and-dance numbers based on obscure T.S. Eliot poetry, so it’s really both incredibly stupid and mind-numbingly brave for a proven studio like Universal to bank serious coin ($95 million, allegedly) on such a concept; perhaps they thought the popularity(?) of the show’s signature ballad “Memory” was enough?
To give credit where it’s due, co-writer/director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) has poured evident passion into this, but his ambition outweighs common sense and the resulting imagery of off-kilter, not-completely-polished, intending-to-be-photorealistic-CGI animation adorning a range of talented performers (Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, and Ian McKellen, to name a few) is upsetting; and then there’s the unnecessary addition of Rebel Wilson, who can somehow strip off a layer of her fur to reveal another cat body – this time donned in a purple bikini of sorts – all the while “singing” as a Rockette-style band of cockroaches serve as her own personal back-up dancers. To say this whole film is like a Russian nesting doll of bad ideas (cat-astrophic even, if we want to get punny) would be putting it lightly.
Hoping to build a story around a production famous for its lack of narrative, the notion that Cats could be something more already puts its nine lives in danger as Webber’s elaborate stage show was really nothing other than a series of vignettes centred around the plight of a former glamour-puss, Grizabella (here played by Jennifer Hudson, this film’s sole performer who’s likely to escape unscathed), who injected the absurdity with much-needed heart. If you were going to build a story, Grizabella’s discarded kitty would seem like the most logical choice, but given that this is a film that seems to enjoy revelling in the illogical, Hooper has expanded the character of Victoria (professional ballerina Francesca Hayward), a solo-less performer in the original show, to act as our eyes and ears for 110 minutes.
So what exactly is the plot of Cats? After being abandoned one evening, Victoria unwillingly finds herself stranded in an elaborate feline-heavy alley on the night of the Jellicle Ball. It’s a night of presumed mischief and mayhem (and melodies) as one Jellicle Cat will earn the chance to be reborn to live the life they truly desire. What’s a Jellicle Cat, I hear you ask. Honestly, I couldn’t really tell you, and that’s with the film explaining it in an overdone number that desperately tries to explain the nonsense of Eliot’s rhymes.
Basically, Victoria (all wide eyed and mouth agape) serves an avatar of sorts for us suffering audience members as she choreographs her way through the town, meeting each Jellicle cat along the way, learning of their individual plights and personalities. Though it’s near-impossible to judge Hayward as an actress, she does a commendable job of carrying the film as movement proves just as necessary here as it does in the stage show. Hooper and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a Tony award winner for Hamilton) place such a heavy emphasis on the language of dance that it can’t help but be a shame that such intricate work is wasted on a film such as this.
Whilst the dancing aspect is one of Cats‘ few bright spots – in addition to the aforementioned Hudson and her admittedly goosebump-worthy rendition of “Memory” – Hooper’s misfire more often than not refuses to blend cohesively with common sense. Perhaps as a midnight movie Cats will be a cult-classic in waiting, and the fact that the film built its sets to scale so that the actors are all cat-sized will add to the novelty that will be drinking-game trivia, but this is just too surreal to be embraced by a general audience. What could’ve been beautiful imagery in an avant-garde cinema setting is a kitty-litter show of inexplicable choices, one that takes all the fun out of the industry punching bags that are Wilson and James Corden, not to mention ruining the beautiful aesthetic that is a naked Idris Elba (I don’t think i’ll ever recover from the sight of the actor stripped bare to reveal his furry, genital-less frame).