Movie Review: ‘Cats’

Disclaimer: a new print of the film is being delivered to cinemas, so I saw a different version of this movie. Until I see the new print for myself I can’t tell you what parts of this review are relevant or not.

If I had to guess, I’d say you can disregard comments on the design and effects.

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Francesca Hayward, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Dame Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan, Steven McRae, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson

Plot: On the night of the Jellico Ball a tribe of cats meet to perform for Old Deuteronomy, who will decide who will be reborn.

Review: This is a viewing experience I’ve struggled to form my thoughts on. Cats is an odd project from the get-go. You have a broadway musical based on a collection of poems, not an easy fit for the blockbuster status the producers are banking on. It’s been 36 hours since we saw it, it’s time to say something.

Whenever we consider one aspect of the film – the design, the narrative, the casting – the one word we keep coming back to is ‘compromise’. Everything about the movie feels like it’s the result of compromise between different factions behind this production.

The most discussed aspect of Cats is the design of the characters themselves. The costumes used in the stage musical on which this film is based didn’t strive for realism, instead looking like cat themed dance clothing with make-up giving them cat features. When making a movie adaptation you’d need to be looking at a spectrum between unrealistic costumes or fully animated motion captured cats. Somehow they landed on actors with CGI fursuits accompanied by Teletubby-esque human faces. The initial impression is unsettling, and unfortunately we never got used to it. When we cut away to a wide, full bodied shot our immersion shattered. Often it was down to the render, the characters seeming disconnected from the setting, or just naturally shaped. Sometimes it’ll be the shifting scale of the cats to their environment that would produce a jarring affect.

Overall the quality of the CGI is, at best, inconsistent. In a year where Endgame gave us a completely convincing superhero vs alien warzone, this is simply not up to scratch. At times it looks like the sequels to The Matrix, which dazzled at the time but look very dated in 2019. And unfortunately for Cats, it is 2019.

Choices in story are also perplexing. Obvious a direct reproduction of the stage show wasn’t going to fly, it’s very far from a standard cinema narrative. There are no main characters, rather it’s an ensemble of felines who are introduced, perform a number to tell their story and then they return to the bench. Eventually one of chosen to be…reborn? Sacrificed? It’s not clear.

The movie tries to structure things around a clear main character, this being Victoria the White Cat (Hayward) who operates as an audience insert role who is new to the situation so things will be explained to her and therefore us. They also give her and the Magical Mister Mistoffelees (Davidson) a romantic sub-plot for no particular reason. Macavity the Mystery Cat (Elba) is more of a villain role, having developed the ability to teleport. He abducts cats after their performances so he’s the only choice at the end, a plot resolved with an action scene resolved through a compromise between the producer who wanted an action scene and a director who didn’t cheapen the film. That being a 5 second long action scene.

This is a story that isn’t without required changes to make it work as a film, but the choices made here do not work. They don’t commit to any idea enough to make any genuine difference, so the stakes never feel high enough to care about. I’m also not a fan of the changes to ‘Magical Mister Mistoffelees’ either. It’s a promo piece that makes it clear that his ‘magic’ are just crappy tricks, he shouldn’t be singing it himself in a nervous voice and he shouldn’t be casting real magic during the number.

Finally, there’s the casting. The bulk of important and memorable roles go to theatre and song & dance performers. We’ve got a principle dancer from the Royal Ballet here as Skimpleshanks the Railroad Cat, but he’s not getting a look in on the trailer. Mister Mistoffelees, Munkustrap, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Victoria all fit in this category as well, and they all carry the most impressive scenes (with one exception). The compromise is a cache of household names who mostly slow the film down. Maybe Rebel Wilson and James Corden will make you giggle just by turning up (as was the case for a few at our screening), but they come to represent the least entertaining musical numbers. Everything comes to a complete stop while the actors are ‘quirky’. James Derulo doesn’t even get all of his songs, losing ‘Magical Mister Mistoffelees’ to the Mistoffelees himself.

We did say there was one major exception, and that is Jennifer Hudson. Her rendition of ‘Memory’ is a show-stopper in every sense of the word.

Song and dance numbers that are fantastic in the broadway show are still mostly entertaining in this context. There’s some talented performers here. The biggest anchor holding the film back is the design of the cats themselves. Just when I thought I was settling into the film – maybe we’d had a few close-ups in a row that let us think they were just costumes – and we’d be struck by how weird the characters looked. I’d have been happier if they’d leaned further into the animated or the realistic, not this uncomfortable looking middle ground. I’d have been happier with the stage costumes. At least they picked a side.

Rating: THREE out of TEN