From the minute that the infamous first trailer was released for Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Cats”, it became abundantly clear to everyone that this film looked like a disastrous misfire of epic proportions. A combination of nightmarish CGI human/feline hybrid character designs that challenge even the furthest extremes of the uncanny valley and musical drama, the tone of the trailer also unjustifiably presents the film as being a somber, dramatic, possible Oscar contender riding off of the success of Hooper’s previous musical adaptation, Les Miserables.
After the merciless bashing that the first trailer had received and the overwhelmingly unfavorable position that it had placed the movie into, the second trailer attempted to showcase it as being more of an extravagant romp that would be the dazzling musical spectacle of the holiday season. The question going into the film now is, “Which of these two wildly varying extremes is a more accurate representation of what the actual movie is?” The answer is both at the same time, which makes for one of the most fascinating high-profile failures in recent history; one that begs to be seen to be believed, and with as much alcohol as possible.
Cats as a musical is quite often mocked for being a musical that has no real plot and is just a series of different cats delivering their signature musical number about themselves one after the other. Those audiences hoping for more of a fleshed-out narrative for a film adaptation will find not much difference from that original preconception. The loose thread of a plot involves a group of cats competing to be chosen by the elder cat, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) as being worthy of ascending into the heavenly afterlife and being reborn into a new life.
With the exception of a certain few (Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, and Idris Elba) each member of the core principal cast, including Taylor Swift who is being headlined almost as the main selling point of the film, appears for their own brief self-serving song only to disappear from the film completely once their song is finished. It is understood that this also happens to be the case with the original source material, however, that approach is more generally acceptable in the context of live theatre, but when translated to film, they range from feeling like nothing more than obligatory cameo appearances from famous pop stars–as is the case with Swift and Jason Derulo–to embarrassingly goofy sideshows with contemptibly obnoxious comedic performances from James Corden and Rebel Wilson.
The film wastes no time when it comes to thrusting you headfirst into surreal, mind-numbing insanity. The opening shot is of the night sky where the clouds form a cat face, immediately setting the tone for exactly the kind of laughable schlock that this had been expected to be. The film is front-loaded with the most unbearable numbers, playing out as the greatest fears of every musical theatre skeptic who sees all musicals as being inherently tacky and artless. This portion also features some of the most disturbing and vile images including mice and cockroaches that are animated with the same human hybrid CGI faces as the cats, and Rebel Wilson unzipping her fur from the neck down to reveal another layer of fur and clothes underneath.
After an endless bombardment of gaudy, glitzy musical numbers and bottom-of-the-barrel attempts at comedy, the film then immediately pivots its tone so drastically into a self-serious wannabe Oscar contender the minute that Jennifer Hudson enters the frame. Hooper tries desperately to recapture the same magic of both Hudson’s previous Oscar win for her powerhouse musical performance in Dreamgirls and the emotional gravitas of Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-winning role in Les Miserables, but in a movie that has not earned that level of pathos whatsoever.
Hudson is clearly a force of nature in the vocal department among this cast, and she does everything that she can to make her character of Grizabella as heartbreaking and deserving of sympathy as she can, but given the circumstances of the film that she is stuck with, there’s no real possibility for her tear-filled wallowing to be seen as anything other than hilariously mismatched compared to the onslaught of ridiculous camp that she is being sandwiched in between.
It probably goes without saying at this point, as it is the most obvious takeaway from the movie, even by those who haven’t even seen it, but the jarring CGI human/cat hybrid monstrosities are disgustingly unappealing and are always a noticeable distraction. In other cases where CGI and other forms of digital trickery are being used to alter or enhance human faces, the best example being The Irishman, usually, the point where our brains initially notice the effect tends to fade away after the first few minutes of being exposed to it and we’re able to naturally accept what we’re seeing. This film never reaches that benefit because the cat designs themselves are so inherently unappealing, and the grossly sexual nature to which these cats move and act is something out of the darkest depths of DeviantArt, making them even more repulsive to look at.
Whether the original musical production deserves to be considered within these terms or not, Cats has long been treated as a punchline of musical theatre and has now definitively solidified itself as also being a punchline of film, if not to an even harsher and more deserving extent.
One of the most fascinating high-profile failures in recent history; one that begs to be seen to believed, and with as much alcohol as possible.