Cats (2019) – A Cautionary Tail

They warned us. They said it shouldn’t be done… but we went ahead and did it anyway. Last night my wife and I took the plunge and sat down to watch the source of so many people’s horror last Christmas… Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Cats (2019).

The first thing that has to be discussed is the CGI cats. I thought it was utterly hilarious that a number of reviewers complained that the body-hugging CGI layer on top of the actors’ forms made the cats look disturbingly sexual – I mean, how is that particularly different from the clinging lycra bodysuits worn on-stage for the musical? Having now seen the CGI cats I’d argue that, if anything, the stage costumes are more sexual – once you’ve added layers of fur (and obscured any hint of a groin bulge in the male performers), fewer of their contours are on display. The reason for this extreme reaction seems to me to come down to one of two options: 1) people have short memories and are prone to massive overreactions; or 2) there’s a certain segment of the population who find it deeply uncomfortable to feel any sort of attraction to a deviation from the human norm (as hinted at by disparaging references to “furries” in at least one review). I can only wonder at what they would have made of the rumoured “butthole cut”, which apparently required one poor animator to spend months dedicated to the task of removing realistic cat bums from each frame of animation.

A bigger issue with the CGI cat bodies is that they create a greater expectation of feline movement – and I’m sorry, but people crawling around on all fours do *not* move at all like cats. Many of the dancers are able to emulate an appropriately slinky style of movement when dancing bipedally, but while there are ways to move around on all fours in a more convincing manner, there’s no evidence of this on screen. The tails are also a sticking point – while the animators have put in the effort to make some of the tails move authentically, there are many more instances when the tails are less convincing, particularly when the performers are spinning around. Given the sheer number of tails on display, I’m tempted to ascribe this to lack of time – the movie was notoriously released before the animators had been given enough time to complete their work, and was met with such ridicule that the studio rushed out an updated Digital Cinema Package which fixed the more egregious errors – but since this was issued only 6 days after the film’s debut, there clearly wasn’t the time available to do much else. (I’ve heard that, despite the studio’s insistence that all versions of the original theatrical release be returned and/or destroyed, some cinema owners kept a personal copy for the entertainment of their friends – although I don’t know of any such cases in Australia, in case you were wondering.) But one final problem can’t simply be ascribed to lack of time, and that’s the shocking inconsistency in the size of the cats as they move from set to set. Can these cats grow and shrink at will? Are they living in an inaccurate reconstruction of our civilisation constructed by an alien race? Or did the director simply not care? You decide.

I never saw the original musical on stage, so all of my expectations for the film were based on David Mallet’s direct-to-video production of Cats (1998). Mallet is an experienced director of music videos and concert films, making his debut with Queen’s “Bicycle Race” (1978) [warning: NSFW] and building up a substantial body of work with David Bowie, Queen and AC/DC. His film successfully captured the feel of a stage production and was especially good at showcasing the dancing. It also answered the question of how Lloyd Webber had managed to create a plot connecting the cat poems of T.S. Eliot into a cohesive whole – he didn’t. There’s the barest vestige of a through-line in the idea that one cat will be selected at the end of the play to journey to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn (although it reads more like a euphemistic post-mortem journey to a “better place” than reincarnation), but it’s really just a series of set-pieces strung together in a barely relevant sequence – which, for a skilled music video director, is sufficient to make it entertaining.

The lack of any real story meant that the idea of turning Cats into a movie was always going to be a dubious prospect at best, but director Tom Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall really managed to take the ball and begin to run with it only to immediately trip over their own feet, land face-first in a filthy gutter and lose the ball in the depths of the sewage system. Every addition they have made to the story is dire and they’ve distorted several of the characters in order to suit their own story. Macavity the Mystery Cat (Idris Elba), the Napoleon of Crime, has been repurposed from a figure of awe into the movie’s villain. In doing so he has become far more seedy street pimp than Moriarty figure, a pathetic character who kidnaps those characters least able to defend themselves when they’re isolated and deposits them on a barge, where they’re tied up and vaguely menaced by Growltiger (Ray Winstone). His wicked masterplan is to remove all competitors so that he is the only candidate available to be recommended for a new life by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) – although if she has such an awesome power, one wonders how she can be so easily catnapped and threatened with drowning when he doesn’t immediately get his way. I can only assume that Idris Elba had not been shown the script when he signed up for this film, because there is no sign at all that he’s one of the most respected actors working today. I’ve seen some good cartoon villain performances in my time, but this is not one of them – it feels like he’s so demoralised by the material that he can only pretend to be putting his heart into his character’s villainy. And as for poor Ray Winstone – what a waste! An ex-boxer who started off with “hard man” roles but quickly proved he was capable of much more, it’s genuinely depressing to see him here as a gone-to-seed thug who looms menacingly but is given barely anything to do and is never allowed to be a believable threat.

Another depressing aspect is the reliance on the old cliché that fat people are inherently funny. To support the script’s rather feeble attempts at injecting a bit of humour, the filmmakers chose to turn two of the larger cats into figures of fun, building the humour almost entirely around their inability to be as graceful as the more lithe examples of felinity surrounding them. Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat doesn’t come off too poorly – Rebel Wilson gives her character sufficient attitude to support her role as mistress of mice and cockroaches, but is undermined by the implication that her weight results in accidental kitchen disasters. Bustopher Jones is treated much worse by both the film and casting. Originally a portly but dignified and impeccably groomed cat, the filmmakers have stripped him of his dignity and made him nothing more than a bad joke – an impression which is emphasised by James Corden’s desperately unfunny performance.

On the more positive side, the filmmakers have recruited some excellent dancers, whose featured scenes shine all the more since they have no need to rely on the support of the script. Francesca Howard, a Kenyan-born ballet dancer who essayed the lead role in some performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, takes the lead role here as Victoria the White Cat. She proves herself to be both talented and versatile in taking on different styles of dance, but tends to default back to conventional ballet stylings. She’s also an able actress – although the script constrains her to a limited range of emotional responses centred on awe and wonder, she somehow manages to find a greater variety of ways to portray these emotions than might be expected. The other dancer who deserves to be singled out is Steven McRae, an Australian ballet dancer who shows off his skills as a tap dancer as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, a relatively small role which nevertheless provides one of the best dance scenes. McRae originated the dual role of Magician/Mad Hatter in Wheeldon’s Alice – unlike Francesca, his performance can be viewed in the home release of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011). Sadly, not all of the dance routines are served as well by Tom Hooper’s choices. The opening sequence is the most egregious example – although there is clearly a carefully choreographed performance by the ensemble cast taking place, Hooper’s choice of camera angles and use of editing prevents the viewer from seeing more than background glimpses of the talent on display, clumsily foregrounding the introduction of the cast in poorly composed shots which serve nobody well. The opening dance number of a musical is supposed to grab the audience’s attention and recruit them to your side, not to leave them wondering whether you know what you’re doing.

Another wrinkle added to the story for the film is the suggestion of a love triangle between Victoria and two potential romantic rivals, Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson). There’s a bit of an ick factor to the first relationship – Munkustrap is her point of introduction to the world of the Jellicle cats, and as their second-in-command in the absence of Old Deuteronomy, occupies a position of authority and trust. Although its possible his level of interest was intended to be more protective than proprietorial, their early interactions have an uncomfortable aura. Mr. Mistoffelees comes across as more timid and uncertain in general, but pushes himself outside of his comfort zone to assist her when required and seems more genuine as a potential partner. He is given the traditional character arc of the underdog who blossoms in adversity and gains a new confidence – which, while appropriate for the romantic subplot he’s been given, is completely inappropriate for the original version of the character as a confident magician. Although neither version is in full control of their powers, the more tentative version seen in the film compares poorly to the original (which is no fault of the actor, only the material he’s been given).

Of the two old hands on show here, Judi Dench does a reasonable job as Old Deuteronomy, but is never really given the opportunity to shine. Sir Ian McKellen’s role as Gus the Theatre Cat provides much greater scope for a carefully calculated character performance and it was a pleasure to observe the nuanced gradation from “befuddled old man past his prime” to “seasoned performer recapturing old glories.”

But – and these are words I never expected to assemble in this order – Taylor Swift’s performance is by far the highlight of the film. Lest this be mistaken for damning with faint praise (which would be understandable given what I’ve said so far), let me be clear – her performance of the song “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” in the role of Bombalurina was exceptionally staged and performed and I would be delighted to watch it again. I’ve never been a fan of her music, but when my wife responded to this performance with the thought that she’d be interested in becoming better acquainted with Taylor Swift’s work, I immediately considered suggesting a shared chronological YouTube binge of her music videos. I didn’t go as far as stating this idea out loud – but then, I’ve just written it in a review which she’s certain to read, so I’ve pretty much just doomed myself.

It’s difficult to imagine at this point that anybody would approach this movie with positive expectations of quality – but if you are determined to forge ahead and experience this creation for yourself, please make sure that you are fortified with a suitably stiff drink.

3 thoughts on “Cats (2019) – A Cautionary Tail

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