DIR: Tom Hooper • WRI: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper • DOP: Christopher Ross • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Tom Hooper • MUS: Andrew Lloyd Webber • DES: Eve Stewart • CAST: Francesca Hayward, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson.
The tense times that we live in can be best defined by their moments of levity. The Pokémon Go craze of 2016 found children and adults worldwide staring through their phones while impending threats to democracy loomed overhead. If you’re at all active on Twitter (which I don’t recommend) you happen upon these moments every six months or so. A relieved exhale between gasps of rage; knives lowered from each other’s throats to catch your breath. The Cats trailer, released on 18th of July, was one such event. Its transmission was seismic, seemingly everyone in film discourse stuck in the same state of hysterics.
The ridiculous CGI on display rendered an A-list cast (itself a bizarre melting pot of British thespians and US pop stars) into pure nightmare fuel. Surely this wasn’t the look they were going with? It had to be work-in-progress, or imminently awaiting the Sonic treatment – a complete redesign from the ground up. Looking back, these assumptions read like the naïve pleas that they are.
Five months later, the full film hits theatres. It is neatly snuggled beneath the tent pole that is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This must be counter-programming, splitting the audiences for Space Operas and Broadway Musicals so each has their own event film for the Christmas weekend. It’s also convenient cover for when the film inevitably underperforms, failing to make back an astronomical budget of a rumoured €300 million.
All this context serves to background the baffling chain of events that left such a hairball on cinema screens around the world. Watching the film is an unreal experience – you are watching real people act in these roles, all the stylistic choices were made by real people; but the distancing effect of this furry CGI strips back any humanity. Great performers are neutered by the hellish technology. Imagine the constrained eeriness of Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat, but without the fleeting comfort of the costumes being only fur and rubber. The digital uncanniness is the real darkness here – a sinister illusion that ensures you never get too comfortable.
Ian McKellen gets closest to some kind of beating heart as Gus the Theatre Cat. In a croaking baritone, he delivers a number on the fledgling state of contemporary theatre, noting a failure of younger cat actors to reach the dazzling highs of his generation. There appears to be a genuine soul behind Gus’ whiskers, and part of it almost feels like a cry for help. The presence of such a ballad within a film as bloated, plotless and artless as this is deliciously ironic.
In the lead role of Victoria, Francesca Hayward fails to grasp onto any semblance of character – the part is shallow, even by the standards of Broadway musicals. The function she serves is to be sung at, scene after scene, by an increasingly aimless parade of demonic felines. And the parade never ends, with each scene introducing us to a new cat, each with a stupider name than the last. The film leaps without breath between the personal anthems of Jennyanydots to Rum Tum Tugger to Bustopher Jones and at a certain point you start to feel a deep ache between your eyes. The endlessness of the things eats away at you. You are stranded, awaiting an inciting incident that never comes. You are trapped inside the discordant malaise.
Cats was controversial as a Broadway musical, and one can see why. It is not exactly an ideal calling card for the medium. Songs have laborious hooks that get stuck in your head and sink in their claws. The content of these songs is threadbare, most of them consisting of a character announcing their existence with no arcs or plot points in sight. Brief spoken asides (often mixed over song lyrics) are frantically used to advance the plot and provide relief. Director Tom Hooper seems under immense stress to try and find a movie within the margins of the material – and the stress ultimately wears him down.
Comparing this to Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables lends insight into a process that results in exponentially weaker results. Filming actors singing live onset (as Hooper did with Les Mis) allows for a reality in the performance which is ultimately undercut by technical restrictions. In trying to get multiple angles without burning out his cast’s vocal chords, the 2012 musical had a cinematic style that resembled a two-hour voyage through a wax museum with a fish-eye lens. Those big faces gave off strong, deeply held emotions, but the film around them gave no breathing space, and the result was suffocating.
His return to the world of musicals in Cats continues the in-your-face, breathless cinematic style, only this time the characters’ faces convey nothing but abject horror in the viewer. The editing is nervous and uncertain, with a shot time of under a second littering these inane musical numbers. The wide shots have no tangible focus, leaving the film no choice but to absent-mindedly shuffle between them like a deck of cards. There are so many reaction shots of characters look at each other in awe, but not one amounts to a meaningful relationship.
The July 2019 experience of watching the Cats trailer was two and a half minutes of (perhaps befuddled) joy. The full film brings more of the same, but the runtime becomes a Herculean burden to withstand. The viewer never gets used to these twisted creatures bounding towards the screen. There is no gradual process of empathising that you might get in similarly unintentional horror film like Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. These things are garish to the final frame. It instils a Lovecraftian madness in the viewer, the silver screen becomes a billowing veil of darkness. The woeful parasitic melodies enveloping them from all angles. A colossal beast beyond human comprehension stares back from the deep beyond, from a world where mercy and virtue have long since perished. It is Tom Hooper’s Cats; a film from which the reputation of cat people everywhere will never recover.