REVIEW – ‘Cats’ is the most inexplicably bizarre film of the year

“Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

The wise Dr. Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park once posed the brief but perceptive summation that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. It seems the perfect quote to relate to the disastrous CGI mess that is the big-screen adaptation of mega-successful stage musical Cats, the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history. Just because one can superimpose a human’s face onto a cat’s body doesn’t mean one ever should. And it’s an uncomfortably garish sight no one should have to endure for two hours.

Originally based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s strange musical of a tribe of felines known as the Jellicles (get ready to hear that word many, many, many times) into a film has been an idea that’s been floating around since the late 80s. That’s entirely where this production should have stayed. While Cats may work perfectly fine on a stage, it makes for absurdly ludicrous fodder for a piece of cinema, offering the most inexplicably bizarre film of the year…maybe even all time.

In all honesty, this critic is still struggling to find the words to rationalise what transpires in this baffling film. It’s jawdropping for all the wrong reasons. The experience of viewing Cats is like dropping some acid, popping down to your local pet store, and watching in horror as the animals all burst into song and dance. And I use that plural because this film doesn’t just contain singing and dancing cats. Oh, no. Prepare yourself for a tapdancing line of cockroaches and a floor show performed by a troupe of mice, complete with human faces. Truly, what on earth did I just watch?

In the middle of the night, a young white cat by the name of Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is cruelly tossed away by her former owner, landing onto a deserted London street inside a sack. When the abandoned kitty finally breaks free, Victoria discovers she’s in the presence of the Jellicles, a clowder (yes, that’s apparently the correct term) of stray cats of indeterminate species.

Confused and scared, Victoria is befriended by silver tabby Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), who explains the inner workings of the Jellicle tribe, particularly the upcoming Jellicle Ball, an annual celebration where one lucky cat will be selected by the Jellicle patriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to be reborn into a new life on the Heaviside Layer. Still with me? Okay, good.

To convince Old Deuteronomy of their worthiness, each cat will perform a musical number, showcasing their talents and explaining who exactly they are and why they should be chosen. As Victoria works her way around the neighbourhood, Munkustrap introduces his new friend to each contender; the lazy Gumbie cat Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), corpulent gentleman Bustopher Jones (James Corden), the saucy, arrogant Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the revered Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen), and the ostracised, former “glamour cat” Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson).

Desperate to win the Jellicle Ball by any means necessary, the nefarious Macavity (Idris Elba) begins to kidnap each contestant one by one, using his mystical powers and the allure of his flirtatious henchwoman Bombalurina (Taylor Swift). As the Ball approaches and the contestants continue to vanish, it’s anyone’s guess who will be the last cat standing. Not really. You’ll likely see the ending coming from a mile away.

It’s the simplest of plots that ultimately plays like little more than a cat talent show with some minor conflict thrown in by the emergence of Macavity and his subplot to steal the coveted prize. There’s no semblance of narrative flow here, as we wildly jump from musical number to musical number without a second to ponder key storytelling elements like character development or narrative progression.

We meet each feline character. They sing a silly song and/or perform an elaborate dance sequence. And then they toddle off to the background, barely to be seen or heard from again. If the idea of watching the American Idol equivalent of the cat world sounds appealing, this will be right up your alley. These sequences are indeed filled with spectacular dance choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and Sarah Dowling with the entire cast evidently undergoing rigorous “cat school” training to perfect their feline movements. But it’s rarely anything other than disarming to see humans walk, talk (yes, they purr, hiss, and meow), and behave like a tribe of street cats.

Musicals all require some suspension of belief, given it’s entirely unnatural for anyone to suddenly burst into song and dance. But the level of disbelief expected of an audience here is simply too great, namely due to the unsightly imagery crafted by the visual effects nonsense that turns the ensemble cast into each feline character. It’s unfathomable the production team didn’t simply utilise makeup and costumes as seen in the stage version. What we’re given instead is an abomination of the eyes that you never once acclimatise to or will ever be able to burn from your mind.

While a few cast members have been blessed with a relatively pleasing aesthetic (thankfully, McKellen and Elba escape this one mostly unscathed), the majority appear as if their face has been sliced off their head and crudely pasted onto a cat’s body. It’s clear hours upon hours have gone into the CGI work of Cats, especially the wildly impressive digital feline fur, but these visuals never once look quite right. Several moments seem as if they’re genuinely unfinished. Perhaps they just finally gave up on this daunting task and thought no one would notice.

It’s a serious issue that an audience cannot just relax and enjoy this film because they’re far too busy squirming in their seats at the uncomfortable visual atrocities being presented to them. For less musically-minded audience members, it doesn’t help this is a traditional Webber musical with very minimal dialogue. When one song ends, another often proceeds it almost immediately. It’s a staple of Webber’s work that, for better or worse, director Tom Hooper has remained faithful to. But it ultimately makes Cats even more inaccessible for mainstream audiences, which, given its Christmas release, this film is so achingly hoping to ensnare.

From the synthesiser-heavy score to the dopey dialogue, Hooper can’t escape the retro 1980s vibe of Cats, offering a film that seems completely at odds with 2019 cinema. For fans of the stage musical, this may be an entirely wondrous trip back in time and it will be interesting to see how Cats fans react to what Hooper has crafted. For anyone entirely unfamiliar with the original work, it’s far more likely to create genuine confusion and dismay. In my screening, this crime against cinema often elicited jeering laughter, and never in moments when the film woefully attempts to be purposely funny.

Those efforts at humour arrive in the form of Wilson and Corden, who offer their usual physical humour schtick that was becoming painfully old long before this film began. Corden’s big number “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town” is mildly entertaining, but Wilson’s “The Old Gumbie Cat” is a downright monstrosity, especially once the aforementioned human-faced mice and cockroaches join her performance. At one point, Jennyanydots scoops one of them up and gobbles the poor creature whole, which may be the most disturbing sight of this entire film.

Dench and McKellen bring some level of gravitas to Cats, but it’s impossible not to feel sorry for such noted actors finding themselves in such a horror show, particularly Dench, whose physical appearance is an unsightly disaster. Derulo has the vocal chops and the dance skills but his attempts at a British accent beg the question of why they simply didn’t cast an actual British performer in the role. Swift is fine, as she’s really only required to perform her slinky number “Macavity,” which she handles with aplomb, before incomprehensibly vanishing from the film in a plot hole that’s as large as they come.

Much like the stage version, you’re all really just here for Grizabella to belt out “Memory.” It’s the film’s one true saving grace. In the hands of the supreme vocal talents of Hudson, the show’s infamous tear-jerker shines with all its intended power, hitting you right in the heart and making an audience want to stand and cheer. Mostly because you’ve had nothing else to cheer for the entire film, so at least there’s one moment to offer some sense of wonderment. Grizabella is the only character blessed with any semblance of a character arc, and Hudson gives it her all in an earnest but doomed attempt to save this picture.

Wrapping up in a moment of sheer crazy absurdity, Dench’s Old Deuteronomy breaks the fourth wall and sings the final number “The Addressing of Cats,” a snooty number unlikely to dispell the misconception all cats are uppity jerks, directly to camera, which appeared to create genuine confusion within my screening’s audience. It echoes the stage version where this moment occurs in the opening number, so at least Hooper has shown some restraint with relegating this confounding choice to the film’s conclusion. But without the context of why the film takes this bizarre and sudden U-turn, it simply does not work.

An ambitious work that seeks to adapt a seemingly unstageable musical, Cats is an unmitigated disaster. A calamity of visually offensive imagery, coupled with a terribly uninteresting storyline, there’s so little here but a hollow CGI nightmare that never should have existed. It’s the kind of cinema that’s so unbelievably ridiculous, it’s bound to become a cult classic. Or, at the very least, the one film people will be dying to watch while stoned out of their minds. Cats truly has to be seen to be believed.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward
Director: Tom Hooper
Producers: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Screenplay: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper
Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Production Design: Eve Stewart
Costume Design: Paco Delgado
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Editing: Melanie Oliver
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2019 (Australia)