Back in July, when the trailer for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats dropped, it became the internet’s new favorite joke and 2019’s easiest punching bag. The internet flooded with memes, reactions, and horror stories about seeing some of Hollywood’s most well-known names as cats and, as for me, I did get a chuckle out of seeing a theater full of kids react in disgust and horror when they saw the Cats trailer before Abominable. However, I also wasn’t ready to label it trash right away for two main reasons. First, I actually knew nothing about Cats, story or much music-wise, and have always had an underlying interest to see what it’s all about. Second, getting a better glimpse of the story in the second trailer, it actually made my interest grow in seeing the film.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t taken aback by the terrible visuals that made everyone put it on blast. Believe me, I have a lot to say about it, but I certainly wasn’t going to let that ruin my experience. So, overall, I was cross paws that Cats wasn’t going to be the abomination that everyone claimed it was going to be—and, truth be told, it’s really not. It’s not good either, but the problems with Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical are much more than the visuals — it’s just not well put together and lacks the energy and personality that I expected.
You’re probably wondering if seeing the CGI humanoid cats is the equivalent of visual throw up. Well, it is. After the first 10 minutes, though, you kind of accept it and move on and at times, it doesn’t look all that bad. When characters like Macavity (Idris Elba) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden) are shown in their costumes, they actually look really cool— especially Macavity. There’s just something so fun about Elba’s performance. Macavity’s shifty and crazed personality is displayed well through his drifter-like costume and I actually started to connect with his character more.
However, when Macavity’s clothes are gone later in the film, I got chills — and they weren’t the good kind. I just think that if the characters wore clothes and costumes, it would be much easier for viewers to pay attention to them rather than be more focused on how strange it is to see Elba as a cat. Like I said, though, it’s more of a first 10 minutes problem. Aside from a few visually unappealing moments when the singing and dancing kicks in, you kind of forget about it. Not to mention, the cats really don’t look that bad after you see the legitimate nightmare fuel with the, I think, mice and roaches during Jennyanydots’ (Rebel Wilson) song.
In terms of other technical aspects, I couldn’t help but feel like Hooper was taking away from the film’s moments of success with how he handles certain scenes and builds the world. The editing completely takes away Hamilton alum Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. How often it cuts around never lets the dancing speak for itself. For instance, Skimbleshanks’s (Steven McRae) tap dancing could have been pure magic if it were done in a single take, but Hooper instead cuts around to people watching him tap so it doesn’t have a smooth flow or suck you into the scene.
The same can be said for most of the musical numbers. If the film weren’t cut at such a rapid pace, then the great dancing could’ve given the film more energy to connect with viewers and also made the environment stand out more. One of the strongest things that drew me into Cats was the noirish, back-alley set design. They still look incredible in the film, but there’s very little context and lore developed to make it more than just cool-looking.
The oddest thing, though, which definitely stems from Hooper admirably attempting to make the film as authentic to Lloyd Webber’s original musical (which is itself adapted from the a poetry collection by T.S. Eliot that inspired it, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), is the score. The original Broadway play premiered in the early 1980s and it sure seems like Hooper didn’t want to do any updating because it sure still sounds that old. While the synth electronic sounds worked with some of the neon, back-alley feel and Macavity’s appearance, you can really feel its age and it’s so distracting at times. It constantly works against any kind of connection with the characters or the plot—which is totally undermined because of what the plot actually is and how it’s handled.
While I was watching Cats, I had a moment of thought (of which I had plenty because of how boring and all-over-the-place the film’s tone is) where I realized how the film reminded me of a play my brother was in, in middle school, called American Idol: Murdering the Music. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. Contestants perform to be the next American Idol and are slowly either killed off or taken away in order for someone to steal the top-prize—and that’s exactly what Cats is.
The film follows the Jellicles, a tribe of cats, as they compete over the course of one night to be the Jellicle choice, which allows them to come back to a new life. The concept is incredibly simple, which I liked, but the execution is done so poorly as there’s zero downtime between songs. It’s hard to get behind any characters because you barely get to know them.
The film literally goes from one song to the next and there are no normal conversations that allow for characters to interact or talk about their feelings towards the whole situation. There’s zero structure, so you’re kind of just whisked along this very un-engaging journey that leaves no mark on you because characters are shown through just one song. The formula of Cats is essentially this: each cat with a personality gets their own song, they’re stolen away by Macavity, and rinse and repeat until someone is chosen. By doing this, first impressions are the only thing that viewers get of each cat and it doesn’t matter if its good or not because they’ll basically be out of the movie after that.
It’s a shame too, because some of the performances and songs are actually quite great. Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift could be nice fits, if their accents were better. Corden is fun as Bustopher Jones and his song was one of the better and more fun parts of the first half. Honestly, before Jennifer Hudson knocking it out of park with the prelude for “Memory,” (the film’s obvious best song) I wasn’t really into the film at all. After that, though, the film ramped up the energy and the songs and performances became much more fun.
Francesca Hayward as Victoria was solid, even though her character doesn’t do a whole lot, and her rendition of “Beautiful Ghosts,” an original song made for the film by Webber and Swift, was actually one of the more emotional moments in the film. It’s great to see Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat and his song is quite enjoyable. It was fun to hear other songs like “Old Deuteronomy,” “Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” were really nice. My clear favorite, which should be obvious considering how much I’ve talked about him, is definitely Elba as Macavity, as he brings this fun energy to the role and his song, which was a pretty dope villain song and I wish he sang more and was in the film more in general.
At the end of it all, Hooper’s Cats is definitely not well-made or unable to capitalize on the potential it has, but it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this year. There’s plenty of fun to be had and I can say that no one in my theater was in such disgust towards the film that they outwardly made fun of it, fell asleep, or walked out. It’s certainly a film that Cats lovers will probably find some enjoyment in, but others will barely find any other than some “it’s so bad, it’s good” qualities.