Movie Review: Cats

Most critics are calling it the worst film of the year. Many others are calling it the worst film of the decade, and a couple have even gone so far as to call it the worst film of the millennium. I assume they mean “so far”. But is CATS really as bad as all that?

Let’s start with a bit of history first. CATS, the play, which premiered in London in 1981, is based on the 1939 poetry collection by T. S. Eliot called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned musical about a tribe of cats called Jellicles and the night that their wise leader makes the “Jellicle choice”, i.e., deciding which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life, has gone on to become the fourth-longest-running production on Broadway and the sixth-longest in the West End. The plan to bring an animated version to the big screen has been on the books for years but the technology to do it with actors looking like cats didn’t exist until very recently. Universal Pictures, which owned the film rights hired Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (THE DANISH GIRL; THE KING’S SPEECH; LES MISÉRABLES), who seemed like the right choice for this experiment in cutting-edge visual effects. Maybe that was their first mistake… or perhaps it was their second.

In this version, Lloyd Webber’s story has been tweaked. Victoria the White Cat (English ballerina Francesca Hayward), has been abandoned, for some reason, at the back of the derelict Egyptian Theatre by her well-to-do owner. Not a Jellicle cat yet, she is the audience’s surrogate on this feline talent show. As each cat performs their theme song that tells us, and eventually Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) too, who they are, not to mention reminding us ad infinitum that they are Jellicle cats, whatever those are, Victoria looks on in wonderment. Becoming a Jellicle cat is apparently Victoria’s only option now that she’s been kicked to the kerb. Eventually, Old Deuteronomy makes her choice but not before we’ve heard Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, DREAM GIRLS) wring every last microdrop of emotion from the musical’s signature song, “Memories”.

There are so many problems with this production that it’s hard to know where to begin. While the technology is interesting, one really has to ask if it was really necessary. Audiences have been watching the play for 38 years without any problem imagining that the actors are supposed to be cats. Do they really need to be cats now? But the bigger problem here is that while their fur and whiskers have been CGIed on, they still look like actors wearing cat suits. And they’re not even good cat suits. Even with the VFX software tweak that arrived by satellite transmission the other day, marking the first time in cinematic history that a film has been altered while it is still in the cinemas, the cats still have hands, feet and sometimes even running shoes where they should have paws. They have manicured nails where they should have claws, and they curiously lack genitalia and butt holes which, at the very least, could have been sniffed once or twice. Then there are the ears, which remain strangely stationary in the first half of the movie and then start to wiggle in the second. Hooper has said that the production schedule was rushed so that the film could be out by Xmas. Does that mean we’re going to see more VFX tweaks in the coming weeks? Too late, pal. The damage has been done.

The matter of scale also seems to be out of whack. For one number, which takes place at Piccadilly Circus, either the cats are giants or the fountain has been miniaturized. For one of the numbers that takes place in an alley behind the theatre, the cats have shrunk some but they’re still larger than a garbage can lid. I’ve seen big cats in my day but not that big. Hooper seems to have finally gotten it right at the end of the film with the number at Trafalgar Square.

Some of the actors have gone on talk shows this past week to talk about their time at “Cat School” but we’ve all seen better cat performances coming from second graders during their year end stage plays. One of the worst performances, and there are so many to choose from, comes from James Corden (YESTERDAY; OCEAN’S 8; BEGIN AGAIN; ONE CHANCE), who plays James Corden in a furry, fat suit. In case you’re wondering, he’s supposed to be Bustopher Jones, the upper class cat, but there’s nothing classy about his performance. Taylor Swift, as the flirty Bombalurina, meanwhile, has all the sexiness of wallpaper paste. Dench is just as miscast here as she almost speaks her songs rather than singing them because, let’s face it, no amount of autotuning would be enough to make her into a singer. Hands down though, the prize for the worst performance goes to Idris Elba (AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR; THOR: RAGNAROK; THE DARK TOWER) who plays the evil Macavity. When he sheds his coat, be sure to look away from the screen because it’s an image that you won’t soon forget. Expect to see him win a Razzie for this role. The film’s one good performance can be found in Robbie Fairchild, who plays Munkustrap, the story’s narrator.

Leaving aside the poor CGI, the scale and the cringe-worthy performances, the camerawork is beyond comprehension. The beautiful choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (DIRTY DANCING; FOSSE/VERDON) is wasted because Hooper couldn’t decide how to capture the spectacle. He repeatedly cycles from close up to medium shot to wide shot and back again, often panning the camera so fast that all the audience sees is a blur of fur.

So how bad is CATS? Yes, it’s certainly in the running to be the worst film of the year. The decade? That’s pushing it.

If you go see this film, my thoughts and purrs will be with you.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 27th, 8:30 am HK time!

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