This is not the worst film of the decade like some have said, it’s not even the worst film of 2019. Tom Hooper’s “CATS” is bizarre, largely unnecessary and in many instances simply poorly executed, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t large stretches where I forgot that I was supposed to hate this film and enjoyed myself.
Having watched the film, I couldn’t get through my head how producers and executives gave the go ahead for this at all. The entire premise of CATS is completely unsuitable for the screen as there is simply no discernible narrative by which to grab an audience. In a nutshell, a gang of cats called the Jellicles present themselves every year to the head Jellicle to decide who will be chosen to go onto another life. The reason that CATS has worked so well on the West End is because of the music, the spectacle, the costumes, the set design, the choreography and because CATS is such a freaking institution in itself, it’s allowed to not conform to the typical narrative conventions of a film or even other stage musicals.
First things first, it was disappointing to see the unnecessary and shaky use of CGI in this film, which has been rightly panned for how inconsistent it is. The cast of the stage show at least had cat-like make up, these are human faces on furry bodies with cat ears and the effect is disconcerting and looks strangely amateurish and incomplete.
I’m not a fan of Tom Hooper as a director. I find his direction stilted, unimaginative and contrived, especially so in his 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables which I can remember watching and hating every moment. It’s strange that he keeps returning to musicals, especially since his style just isn’t compatible for the genre. He relies heavily on hand held cameras and for some reason likes to get right up into the grill of the singing figure, even in big set numbers with the entire ensemble. While this worked to a degree for Anne Hathaway’s Oscar winning three minutes in Les Mis, he uses the technique far too often and it becomes tiring very quickly. And by doing so, Hooper effectively removes two of the key appeals of CATS the stage show, those being the choreography and the company dance numbers. By jumping from close up to close up in such early songs as “The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball” and “The Rum Tum Tugger”, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography (of Hamilton fame) is made largely redundant.
It’s like this for the good first half of the film and it was killing me. I had actually resigned to the fact that I was going to loathe the entire experience until Old Deuteronamy makes an appearance and for some reason Hooper decides from then on in to bring the camera back and let the company do their thing, essentially allowing a sense of the theatre to return. From then on in, I relaxed and started to really enjoy the spectacle (the set design at times really is spectacular) and the iconic musical numbers themselves (“Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” was especially done well and I’ve been been humming “Mr. Mistoffelees” for two days now).
Performance wise, Francesca Hayward is the clear stand out as Victoria in an unexpectedly clever casting move. Hayward is the principal dancer for the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden and is delicate and innocent as Victoria the white cat. Rebel Wilson and James Cordon have been delegated to comedic relief and neither really do it justice, indeed Wilson is patently unfunny and irritating when on screen. Judi Dench of course holds gravitas as Old Deuteronomy but can’t hold a note at all and it was uncomfortable to see her warble and rasp through her lines. My mate who I saw the film with started laughing when Jennifer Hudson started singing “Memory”, (well “singing” is probably a strong term as she snots and sobs her way through the ballad, only really properly delivering in the final couple of lines).
This isn’t a great film. The direction is sloppy and inconsistent, a number of the performances were very average and the final product was in need of a serious re-edit. In saying that, it’s not the unmitigated disaster that I had been promised and even though it may have happened in spite of Tom Hooper’s misguided efforts, the magic and the charm of the stage show have managed to seep through.
By Jock Lehman.