As the credits roll on Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of Cats, you can’t help but wonder how we got here. That statement has a lot of meanings in this case: How did anyone think adapting a musical with no plot would be a good idea? How did the approach to all of it pass muster? How likely is it that Hooper was in on the joke, or at the very least had a secret hatred for this musical and wanted to make a movie designed to prove how dumb it all was? HOW DID ANYONE LET THIS SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY?
Before we really get into this, I should note that I was raised on Cats, and generally like the music a lot more than most critics seem to. Keep that in mind.
There’s a reason why the show that was once the longest running Broadway musical in history was never made into a major movie musical. It doesn’t help that the show doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. Sure, there’s a very light frame based around the annual Jellicle Ball, where venerated cat Old Deuteronomy chooses one of its disciples to be reborn and ascended to the Heaven-like Heavyside Layer. That’s all an excuse for the cats to sing their songs one by one with little to no continuity in between, making the show far more of a revue than a story. That’s all well and good, but doesn’t translate nearly as well to the screen.
It was up to Hooper, then, as well as co-writer Lee Hall, to find some way to make this work as a movie. They do so by focusing on Victoria (newcomer Francesca Hayward) as the audience surrogate, a cat new to the Jellicle society and utterly confused by all the nonsense going on around her for much of the first act. Her guide is Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), who explains the ways of the Jellicle Ball and the importance of the choice Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will make later on that night. Once the stage is set, the rest of the film is basically just as the musical is, a series of songs introducing cats like Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and countless others. All the while, the sinister Macavity (Idris Elba) seeks to rig the vote by kidnapping every other cat vying for the prize, and the lonesome, morose and outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) looks on from outside.
If you believe Hooper, he supposedly finished the film just hours before its’ debut the Monday before its release. When you watch the film, you may not necessarily believe him. Their biggest selling point, the oft ridiculed “Digital Fur Technology” that covers each actor in kitty fur, is honestly pretty good. The fur itself stands up to scrutiny in close-ups and wide shots, and looks good enough to believe that it could have been a practical costume with real fur. The issue, however, is how this carpet of CG put over every body in the film affects the rest of the visuals. Anything that touches the fur, on the other hand, is a completely different story. The best example is made painfully clear within the first ten minutes of the film, when Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots first appears and we get a look at her collar. It’s shockingly bad, floaty and shadowless, immediately drawing the eye away from anything else. There are plenty of other collars, jewelry pieces and clothes that similarly look like they were rendered in a mid-90s video game, each time ensuring that the film looks like a rushed and jumbled mess. What’s arguably worse is how the approach undercuts their decision to shoot on real sets, with many of the characters having that same superimposed and poorly composited appearance so often seen in films shot in front of a green screen. I feel bad for the visual effects artists who worked on this film, as they surely could have fixed these problems with enough time, and there’s plenty of dazzling work.