Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba
Writers: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper
Once a year a tribe of cats called the Jellicles descend onto the Jellicle ball where one will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life (no, me neither!).
A few years ago, while riding on the success of The King’s Speech and undoubtedly having far more doors open to him and bigger budgets at his disposal, British (and former EastEnders) director Tom Hooper took on what certainly could have been considered a fair risk by making another cinematic version of Les Misérables and trying to make as much of the script as possible (even standard conversations) sung by the cast. Well, it has to be said that Hooper and his team involved in the process pulled it off with aplomb, and the result was a commercial and critical success. Well, can lightning strike twice?
Regrettably, the answer is a resounding no.
The impact that the initial trailer for Cats has is very well known, and the reaction it received was certainly less than positive. Well, the film itself does nothing to rectify that, in fact it only further confirms the abundance of negative opinions on this as very much fully justified. Cats is an absolutely horrific cinematic experience, and the only interesting or engaging thing about it is the reasons why anyone thought this film was actually a good idea.
Whether it is from page to screen or stage to screen, those involved in the transition have to appreciate that these different mediums and all the various storytelling elements are judged by different standards and in different ways. So people dressed up as cats may well work on the stage because of the limitations that being a stage production has, but a big budget film is always going to be judged differently and the bizarre CGI-based characters that appear as some kind of disturbing mutant with furry bodies, tales and cats ears, but human faces with human teeth (not cats teeth – which would have surely been easy to do!) and human hands and feet just really do not work at all. As with any film, a suspension of belief is required, and that is fine, but Cats is more like some horrific horror film than a supposedly magical musical. For some reason there is a cat that can magically teleport other cats at his (and the narrative’s) convenience, but why or how is never even explained. This would be fine if the film had a magical element but given the supposedly gritty and realistic setting of the film (which is actually like some Fallout version of an eerily empty post-apocalyptic London) it just does not work at all.
Likewise, a film’s storyline is going to inevitably face bigger scrutiny then a musical on the stage, and musicals tend to have wafer-thin plots that are based around their songs, but the ‘plot’ to Cats is even worse than that; the plot is beyond minimal, and certainly without any kind of justifiable explanation. For a musical to work on screen there have to certain elements that translate onto the big screen, and Les Misérables worked because it was visually cinematic, but also had a genuinely good story. Even the likes of Sunshine on Leith and Mamma Mia (both of them) work well enough because they have a sense of fun and some great visual set pieces involving human characters that we can at least relate to on some level. Though there is potential in the storyline of Cats to produce some interesting characters and explore some relatable themes of rejection, loneliness, loyalty and redemption (even by listing these I am giving the film more credit than it deserves) Hooper and his team for some bizarre reason do not even feel the need to do this and think that the apparent ‘visual spectacle’ (there is not one) will be enough.
The first third of the film is just very forgettable musical set pieces (that feature quite repetitive and uninspiring lyrics) of characters introducing themselves, even though some of these characters actually play no real importance in the ‘narrative’. Once the characters then get to this ‘Jellicle ball’ we then get more forgettable musical numbers that just mean nothing. The only memorable moment is inevitably when Jennifer Hudson sings ‘Memory’ (which is undoubtedly a great song, hence why it is famous in its own right), and as much as it feels like Tom Hooper is trying to recreate the magic of Anne Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, that is just not possible because of the fact that it is impossible to engage with Cats on any level.
Of the characters, Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is the only one that has any kind of interesting story (and this is wafer-thin), and Hudson herself does giver her all in a very emotional (and totally wasted) performance. The only other two characters that are slightly memorable are Laurie Davidson’s Mr. Mistoffelees and Francesca Hayward’s Victoria. We see the narrative unfold from Victoria’s point of view, and despite being covered in CGI, Hayward does a decent job at depicting her character’s naivety and genuine kindness.
The rest of the cast of big names basically turn up to collect their rather generous cheques and play themselves as CGI human-cat mutants, and even as these weird mutant creatures, James Corden and Rebel Wilson still manage to be incredibly annoying!
Now I may be wrong, but I genuinely believe Tom Hooper made this film with the best of intentions, and with genuine passion. These intentions and passions were obviously deeply misguided, but the biggest shame should fall on those that greenlit the expensive budget for this visual cacophony. If anything, Cats is a perfect example of the extremely low opinion and utter contempt the top studio executives have for cinema goers. They basically thought “the story makes no sense, but as long as we make it colourful and have lots of famous people in it, the stupid film fans will pay to see it in their droves and not even question the film’s plethora of problems.” Well, as much as there are a lot of very successful films that are VERY stupid, there is a general consensus among everyone that Cats is terrible, so it is unlikely that the huge budget spent will be recouped. Unfortunately, the scapegoat is likely to be Tom Hooper, who has proved in the past to be a talented filmmaker, and so it would be a shame if this is the end of his tenure as a Hollywood director.
Director Tom Hooper may well have committed one of the biggest ever acts of cinematic hubris in thinking this stage-to-screen adaptation could have ever worked; Cats may well be the first ever horror film to be granted a ‘U’ certificate, as this visual cacophony is certainly one of the most horrific cinematic experiences of recent times.
Pingback: 2019 in Review – My Cinematic Highlights of the Year | The Cinema Cynic