Directed by Tom Hooper | Written by Hooper and Lee Hall, based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is based on a poetry collection by TS Eliot | 110 min
I will give one thing to this perverse adaptation of the long-running stage show, it commits. It commits to its bonkers world, to being faithful to a musical that had only the barest stitch of a story. It doesn’t add much but one new song from Taylor Swift and the show’s creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and still expects the non-plot to carry the day. And then it slathers the whole deal with layers of unconvincing computer generated imagery.
I saw the musical once, years ago. The stage set was immersive, and the performers impressive, but it’s otherwise a mystery why it was such a success—with the exception of that one, ahem, memorable song. The film follows very much the same pattern—a series of songs introducing characters we have no emotional connection to, and this loose idea that they’re all gathering at a ball where one will be transmuted to some kind of elevated state, which sounds weirdly like Logan’s Run.
Hooper has shown he knows how to tell a story in Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, and The King’s Speech, and yet his film version not only shines a light on the narrative problems baked into the stage musical, it refuses to improve on them. This is weirdly empty and tasteless gruel, with various odes to “the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity,” which could be cool, or even adorable, but ends up feeling queasy and more than a little perverse.
I can’t deny a certain sexiness to the performers covered in fur, clearly talented singers and dancers doing their damnedest to deliver the impossible. The close-ups allow for the expressive cat-like ears, which I liked, but the medium and wide shots reveal the deep flaws in what has been reported as rushed and incomplete special effects, and I was one of those who saw the so-called “fixed” version—it still seemed shoddy. In a production like this where movement is so important, the FX ends up diminishing the physical grace of the cast, rather than accentuating it. They often look like they’re floating, unreal—the CGI makes you doubt everything you see.
There’s also more than a little fat shaming that feels deeply out of tune with where we are in 2019. I felt bad for the full-figured James Corden and Rebel Wilson, but that feeling of pity extended to the other performers floundering in this world, including Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, and especially Jennifer Hudson. As Grizabella, she leans into her show-stopping tune, “Memory” but then strains to deliver an emotional wallop completely out of step with the rest of this fuzzy fantasy. It’s as if Hooper instructed her to go full Anne Hathaway-In-Les Miz, but her tone doesn’t match anything in the work around her. Rivers of snot running down her face make for an odd textural contrast with a magic humanoid cat teleporting other humanoid cats to a barge in the Thames where they’re forced to walk the plank, all while singing.
It’s the kind of movie that leaves you with dozens of questions, and no answers, starting with: Who believed a massive investment of resources and talent into this was a good idea? One day Cats could have a cult, the way Xanadu has blossomed over the years, especially with those who enjoy watching movies in altered states, but for now I’d wager the film will only be of interest to the sexually adventurous or morbidly curious.