Geez. Where to even begin.
First of all, I’ve never seen the Cats stage musical. Nor did I know much about it prior to this film; only that it was up there among the longest-running Broadway shows of all time. And so this review approaches the film as solely a film – with little reference to how it connects or doesn’t connect to the stage show.
Somehow, Oscar-winning filmmaker Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) agreed to direct and produce this, and a big-name cast that includes Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Idris Elba signed up to star.
The plot follows abandoned cat Victoria, played by Royal Ballet ballerina Francesca Hayward. Alone and unaware of the streets, she proceeds to meet cats from a tribe called the Jellicles, who are in the process of finding out who will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new life. The night is threatened by bad cat Macavity (Elba), who is determined to be chosen, by any means necessary.
Don’t let the above synopsis make you think this is a smooth, logical narrative. It’s essentially a montage of different cats introducing themselves and attempting to teach us… about cats? About different classes? Who knows. As the film goes on it becomes clear that there’s no real point to anything, and by the time Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall with a lesson at the end, not one person would question why you’re throwing up middle fingers and rolling your eyes.
That first trailer arrived to widespread negativity, mostly due to the very creepy visual effects. Indeed, seeing the big-name cast in makeup/CG that endeavoured to make them look like human-cat hybrids was unintentionally hilarious and horrifying, and producers responded with assurance that the digital effects were still in progress. Well… put this whole thing back in; it’s not done yet.
Yes, this thing looks bad, like, really bad. The uncanny valley horror is present throughout, and while there are occasional moments where the CG manages to just mesh with a performer, it proves almost impossible to sit back and accept this bizarrely designed cinematic effort. They really should have abandoned the ambitious visual effects and simply gone for makeup and costumes. The elaborate sets do little to nothing to impress, with props looking like hand-me-downs from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and CG backgrounds that look like… CG backgrounds
Even a film with bad visuals can be helped a little with a strong story and well-written screenplay. Which is to say, Cats has basically nothing going for it. As mentioned, the episodic plot seems pointless and the lack of focus – on either a character or at least one of their stories – is hugely punishing when you’re looking for something (anything!) to help get you through the cringy dialogue and lacklustre music.
You can imagine the cast are doing what they can, but with so much wrong it was always going to be a losing battle. On the more positive side of things (I’m really trying here), James Corden manages to provide a smirk or two during his number, Jennifer Hudson reminds everyone that she can indeed sing with the musical’s primary track “Memory” (although it’s like producers saw Dreamgirls and wanted her to give a repeat performance), and that’s about it. Dench, McKellen and Elba’s talents are wasted, Jason Derulo’s hyper-sexual RnB cat Rum Tum Tugger is jarringly out-of-place, Taylor Swift’s number as Bombalurina seems to be there just to have the popstar in the movie, and Rebel Wilson packs in wince-inducing “comedy” as she rehashes the ‘clumsy plus-size girl’ shtick that’s she’s pummeled to death now.
As the cast attempts to emote behind crappy effects and deliver characterisation with mumbly lyrics and without much-needed context, it’s crystal clear that this film adaptation of the musical needed to actually adapt the musical for the screen medium. Fan nods and accuracies be damned; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
And so, Cats is terrible, almost fascinatingly so. It’s strange to think of how this $US100 million film and the many, many, many weird-as-hell creative choices within it were greenlit over the process and how much talent is involved (even Steven Spielberg is an executive producer). To big fans of the stage musical: simply see the stage musical again. To everyone else: spend 1 hour and 50 minutes staring at your cat or watching funny cat videos on YouTube instead.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆
‘Cats’ is in US cinemas from December 20 and Australia cinemas from Boxing Day.