Arguably the most indelible Broadway show of all time, it might be surprising that Cats took nearly forty years to be turned into a movie. At least until you see the movie they made. The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper has put away the 18mm lens that gives his movies that weird fish-eye effect and substituted it with motion-capture tech and something called digital fur. He’s gathered a huge roster of stars and thrown as much money at it as it took to get this thing made. But it’s almost as if nobody involved in the production of Cats the movie has ever actually bothered to watch Cats the show, and so one of the most jawdroppingly dull spectacles of the stage has become possibly the most misguided and annoying film of 2019.
As if nobody involved in the production of Cats the movie has ever actually bothered to watch Cats the show.
The film (based on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical, based initially on poems by T.S. Eliot) is the story of the Jellicle Cats (don’t ask), who meet once a year under the Jellicle Moon (I said don’t ask) to attend the Jellicle Ball, at the end of which one of them will be selected to ascend to Cat Heaven (which they call the Heaviside Layer). One at a time, Cat characters with stupid names like Bustopher Jones or Rumpleteaser or Rum Tum Tugger or Jennyanydots appear, sing as song about who they are and what they do, and at the end one of them is rewarded with a ride on a flying chandelier (in the show it’s a tire, but the film has been relocated from a junkyard to an abandoned theater). It’s the thinnest of clotheslines upon which to hang a bunch of now-very-famous but frequently nonsensical songs (like, of course Memory, or Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, in which it is revealed that a cat controls the train for some reason). It’s a reality talent competition in which every last contestant completely embarrasses themselves.
What arguably makes this a popular tale is the catchiness of the songs and, more importantly, the skill of the performers on stage, who basically broke their bodies day in and day out in sweltering makeup and cat costumes to put on a show for tourists. But Hooper’s movie has abandoned the costumes for CGI, mapping his actors’ faces on to motion-captured cat bodies (that still creepily have human fingers and toes). The illusion is a complete and often strikingly ugly failure and a total distraction, getting in the way of the music, the set design, and especially the dancing (which in the most elaborate of cases appears to have been performed by professional dancers with the actors’ head digitally composited on. Much has been made about how creepy the whole thing looks, but once the initial shock wears off, Cats’s potential for nightmare fuel evaporates, leaving just a very monotonous eyesore.