CatsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/19/19 11:05:52
Thanks to a combination of good luck, common sense and no parent or significant other with the power to cajole me into acting against my best interests, I have never seen “Cats” on the stage. However, I have just seen the long-gestating film adaptation of the show and the good news is that I suspect that with proper care and bed rest, I should be able to return to solid foods in a fortnight or so. Sure, people have been making jokes about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” practically since the day it made its debut in London in 1981 but so many others have seen and enjoyed it over the years that I just assumed that there would be some element to it that would allow me to understand why so many have responded to it, even if I didn’t necessarily do so myself. And yet, unless the material has been messed with in some major way in its trip from the stage to the screen—and I have not heard anything that would suggest that is the case—I am now even more baffled than ever. I admit that I have seen worse musicals than this one over the years—the screen versions of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” and “Rock of Ages” immediately leap to mind—but in those cases, I could at least understand what was going on at most points and grasp what the appeal must have been, even if it didn’t quite translate. “Cats,” on the other hand, is so utterly mystifying that, by comparison, “Eraserhead” is much easier to explain and understand and it has an infinitely better soundtrack to boot.One of the odder things about “Cats” over the years is that despite all the things that I have read about it and all the people that I have known over the years who have seen it (including my beloved grandmother), I never once received anything close to an adequate explanation as to what the actual plot of the show might be. Based on the evidence supplied here, I know understand why that is—there is hardly anything resembling a story and what traces of one do exist are so silly that most people would be embarrassed to admit that they actually shelled out big bucks to see it. Set in a stylized fantasyland version of London where, save for one exception, there is not a single human to be seen, the film takes place over the course of the one night each year where the Jellicle Cats come together for a celebration and talent show that culminates with their leader, Old Deuteronomy, selecting one of them for the privilege of traveling away to Heaviside in order to be born into a new life. This may sound silly but trust me, long before the movie ends, most viewers will be yearning for a similar transformation.
Our guide to this world is Victoria (Francesca Hayward), whom we see being abandoned by her human owner right at the start and through whose eyes we are introduced to the other cats competing for the prize. There is Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), a super-spoiled housecoat who we see leading a kick line of cockroaches in a dance number atop a cake. Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) electrifies the female cats with his swagger and rock star moves. Bustiphor Jones is a cat whose entire persona you can probably figure out from the fact that he is portrayed by James Corden. The saddest of the cats is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), who has been shunned by her fellow Jellicles after falling under the influence of the evil Macavity (Idris Elba), who possesses magic that he deploys to rid himself of the competition so that Old Deuteronomy will have no choice but to grant him another life. Other cats on display include Gus the Theatre Cat (Sir Ian McKellen), who serves as the emcee of the show, Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson), who claims to have magical abilities that just might save the day when all seems lost, and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), who appears to be Macavity’s henchcat, though this character turns up so late in the proceedings that I cannot be certain that I didn’t simply imagine Swift turning up as a way of distracting myself from what I was seeing.
As I said, people have been trying to make a movie out of “Cats” for decades now but based on my admittedly uncertain grasp of the material, I can really only think of one filmmaker who might have actually done justice to the material and that is the late Ken Russell, the creator of such cheerfully over-the-top spectacles as “The Devils,” “Tommy” and “Altered States.” Granted, these may not strike you as the ideal credentials for the potential director of this particular material but at his best, he had two things going for him that might have served him well here—a cheerful willingness to thumb his nose at any form of artistic pomposity in the material he found himself working with if he thought that it took itself too seriously (as was the case of “Tommy” and “Altered States”) and a flamboyant and seemingly inexhaustible visual style that kept things chugging along even when the narratives began to falter. The mind boggles at the thought of what he might have done with it but alas, the project instead got the director that it (if not the audience) deserved in Tom Hooper, whose previous efforts, including “The King’s Speech,” the screen version of the musical iteration of “Les Miserables” and “The Danish Girl,” have made his name synonymous with bland Oscar bait. Besides the fact that he just is not an especially good or interesting filmmaker—the fact that his work on “The King’s Speech” earned him an Oscar over the likes of David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and the Coen Brothers will go down as one of the great embarrassments in the history of the Academy—he proves to be uniquely unsuitable for the material. In comparison to his previous efforts, he is clearly trying to loosen up here and demonstrate something vaguely resembling whimsy but has no feel for it. The comedic moments repeatedly land with such a thud that it makes one wonder if Hooper has ever actually seen a comedy before. Likewise, he has no flair for the more fantastical elements as well—throughout the proceedings, he proves to have a whim of osmium and practically suffocates the material in his efforts to invest it with some kind of magic. He seems a bit more at home with the more overtly dramatic moments but they are a.) few and far between and b.) hampered somewhat by the fact that the dramatic are being performed by actors made up to look like humanoid cats.
Some of these failings could have been mitigated if Hooper had once demonstrated some kind of visual style that might have helped to support the material but he manages to fumble this as well. Simply put, this is one of the most garish-looking movie musicals I have ever seen. Hell, if someone just planted a camera in the audience of a stage production of the show and pressed “record,” they would probably come up with a better visual record by default. The outsized sets are elaborate and clearly cost a lot of money but the lavishness of the execution cannot cover up the tackiness of the concept. The staging of the endless array of musical numbers is continually uninspired—Francesca Hayward (making her screen debut) may be a top ballerina but you wouldn’t guess that from the way that Hooper presents her dances. As for the much-vaunted technology used to give the actors cat-like fur that inspired such confusion when the first trailer hit, it just looks so ridiculous that you wonder why the producers didn’t just bother with traditional makeup and visual effects since those result hardly could have looked goofier than what we have been given here.
That said, perhaps the single strangest element of “Cats” is how it completely fails to connect with viewers in any noticeable way. It is weird, to be certain, but it is never engaging for a single moment. We never care about the various cats or which one gets to ascend to a better life and possibly a better movie. Victoria, the newcomer cat, is presumably meant to be the center of audience focus but she is too often cast to the side while the other cats go through their increasingly tiresome paces. The performances are mostly terrible, unless you enjoy watching talents actors trying to cope with what must have been a completely absurd production. (I would rather eat glass that watch “Cats” again but if someone were to put out a warts-and-all behind-the-scenes documentary on its making, I would watch the hell out of it.) Put it this way—this is a film that includes the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba in the cast and yet the only one who manages to hit the right note is Derulo, who does make an impact with his pop idol take on Rum Tum Tugger. The film is filled with music from beginning to end but only two of them stand out to any degree. The first, of course, is the immortal “Memory” and while it is a tune that has long since drifted into musical infamy, Jennifer Hudson manages to bring something resembling actual emotion to her performance of it and indeed, her rendition is probably the closest thing the film has to a successful scene. The other is “Beautiful Ghosts,” a collaboration between Webber and Swift that comes as a change of pace that is a blessed relief of the monotony of the other tunes, though my guess is that most listeners are going to forgo the version heard in the film proper, where it is performed by Hayward, and stick with the one sung by Swift herself that plays over the end credits.One question remains—will those who actually have embraced “Cats” throughout the years in its stage incarnation take to this film version with the same degree of fervor? Those fans will probably turn out in droves to see the film but my guess is that they are not going to go for it, at least not to the degree that they did when it was on the stage, In its original stage incarnation was perhaps notable for the ground-breaking ways in which it took the tricks of the blockbuster movie trade and applied them to musical theatre. Now that it is in the multiplex alongside other blockbusters that are just as big, it essentially has to survive on its own artistic merits and on that basis, it comes across as almost shockingly puny. Frankly, the only thing I really got out of it was the realization of just how uncannily accurate the tragically short-lived Chris Elliott anti-sitcom “Get a Life” was when it mercilessly spoofed the show in one episode as “Zoo Animals on Wheels.” I suppose that the mere existence of a production as strange as this one—especially one produced on the scale utilized here—might inspire some viewers to consider checking it out to see just how far out it truly gets. That is a noble thought but, ironically, “Cats” will quickly and decisively kill any curiosity one might have for good.
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