Synopsis – A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
My Take – Every decade has their own set of terrible films. Films made so poorly without any sense or salvage that forces you to question – what were the cast and crew involved thinking? A few days ago, we were once again served with such a film in the form of Oscar nominated director Tom Hooper‘s latest musical.
When the announcement was made that director Hooper was due to bring another Cameron Mackintosh production to the big screen, following his success with 2012’s Les Misérables, it appeared to be a match made in heaven. Adapted from TS Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, following its 1981 premiere, the stage production has become both a longstanding smash success and a sort of running gag in pop culture.
With an insane star-studded cast attached, the film continued earning buzz that is until its trailer released, and instantly went viral for all the wrong reasons. With the main focus on how it portrayed the cast as cat-sized cats that look like humans in CGI-enhanced cat suits and mostly walking on two legs, making it a truly horrifying sight. After finally seeing the film I can see why the film bombed at the box office.
Yes, the film fully lives down to the expectations set by its promos of being mind-blowingly awful, disturbing and most importantly very boring. With its run time, it managed to leave me confused, lost, amused, tested and terrified, all at the same time. For all the love/hate reactions the show has inspired onstage, I am sure it at least made kind of sense in a theatrical context, as a series of human performers, dressed like cats, came out and sang about their lives.
Here, with a star-cluttered cast, a massive budget, and an overweening sense of self-importance, the end result does nothing to justify the time and effort that apparently went into producing this film. While cats may have nine lives, but this new film makes sure to suck out every last one of them.
The story follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a young white cat who one night is dumped into trash which is littered with other cats. Unknown to her it the night of the Jellicle Ball, a once-a-year event when the whole tribe of Jellicle cats from far and wide gathers for a most incredible happening. They tell stories, sing songs, dance freely and name a cat’s true third name. But at the peak of the Jellicle Ball she’s told that a single cat will be chosen and sent aloft to the Heviside Layer where that special he or she will leave all their cares behind and find a rebirth in a new life. All decided by the Jellicle matriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench).
But before that young Victoria meets several eager candidates this year, like the lazy tabby Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), the incredibly rotund Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) and Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) among others who want the evening’s grand golden chance.
But the cat that catches Victoria’s eye is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a sad and tattered feline, who is a grey outcast, shunned by the others. It’s whispered that she once was glamorous and beautiful before falling in with and being corrupted by a foul alley cat called Macavity (Idris Elba), who is willing to go to any lengths to become the chose one. Of course, Victoria isn’t even a Jellicle, so she can do nothing more than simply dance, watch and wait as the Ball winds on and witness who will become the chosen one.
For starters, that morbid plot, or lack of one, concerning alley cat cult the ‘Jellicles’, competing to go to kitty heaven through song, is completely deranged. Unless you come in with a solid working knowledge of exactly what’s supposed to be going on, nothing is going to make any sense. Who is Macavity, the cat with colored contacts and an almost obscenely well-muscled cat suit, and how and why does he keep making cats literally disappear? Are there human-size humans in this universe? The cats imply as much, but the humans remain unseen, even during the broad daylight. However, the worst part according to me would be cat puns on all of the advertising hoardings.
Yes, as one would have expected the film turned out to be as strangely a tortuous experience, like it looked from the trailer. While a few lines of dialogue are inserted in an attempt to create some sort of flimsy narrative framework, however, like Les Misérables, this film too is kept sung-through style, which can be exhausting for filmgoers, as I believe a musicals works best when they break up the numbers with dialogue scenes.
It would be one thing if every song fed a story arc, but the lyrical content here is often nonsensical, especially the ones sung by the candidates about themselves. Which was alright, if we would focus on the characters.
The point of Victoria’s character remains unclear till the end but director Hooper gives her the most screen time and a lot of lingering close-ups, which she spends staring at the other felines in wide-eyed wonder. Rather than build a character arc for the feline heroine, we get two hours of random character introductions.
Some elements of the film almost work, like the set looks terrific, even though the scale is nonsensically inconsistent. The music is also essentially alright with its share of tongue-in-cheek levity.
Much has been made of the use of effects since the first trailer landed. The new technology were the bodies of the cat characters were rendered with digital fur and blended with the actors’ actual faces, is quite terrifying. Several of the female cats have well defined bosoms and Idris Elba boasts a six-pack beneath his fur. Their tails twitch constantly.
Most of them go naked, but a few are fully or partially clothed in elaborate steampunk styles. Judi Dench wears a floor-length fur coat that might have been made from her own pelt. Worst of all are the long, human fingers emerging from the ends of furry paws.
While innovative, high-energy choreography may have been the redeeming feature of the stage musical, in the film, the dances are by the accomplished Broadway choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, but the result is lackluster, and much of the movement is so heavily CGI-manipulated that one wonders why they bothered hiring live actors at all. Undoubtedly there are talented dancers, but they are given no room to shine.
The cast is also utterly wasted. While Francesca Hayward is graceful and fleet of foot, on the too-rare occasions she is allowed to dance rather than hang around looking ripe for seduction, it’s hard to judge her performance under all of the motion-capture effects. Steven McRae, wearing bizarre red dungarees and cap, gets to briefly show off his chops in a nimble tap solo, before leading a procession of cats across London Bridge.
While Rebel Wilson and James Corden do only fat jokes, Jason Derulo and Jennifer Hudson get to show off their vocal talents. Idris Elba has proved himself to be a killer antagonist in many films before, here his character is just too silly to be taken seriously, hereby effecting his performance as well.
Taylor Swift leaves an ironically vivifying effect in her brief role. Laurie Davidson manages to dazzle as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, who doubts his abilities as a magician before realizing his self-worth in the most empathetic role. Only Ian McKellen and Judi Dench emerge with their dignity intact from this horrific film. On the whole, ‘Cats’ is a truly atrocious and spectacularly bad musical that should be seen only if you’re insanely curious to witness something so awesomely bad.
Directed – Tom Hooper
Rated – PG
Run Time – 110 minutes