SINGAPORE – The plot of Cats — if you can even call it that — is a simple one. Young Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned in the back streets of London’s Theatreland and comes across a whole bunch of cats. They are awaiting the annual Jellicle Ball, and then proceed to sing songs about themselves. Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) then chooses the cat who will go on to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn into a new life.
Along the way, Victoria is introduced to a veritable catalogue of cats, ranging from the tubby tabby Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), tomcat Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen), fat cat Bustopher Jones (James Corden), and the grizzled Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), all vying for a place in the Heaviside Layer. Meanwhile, the devious Macavity (Idris Elba) does his best to take down the competition to ensure he wins that coveted spot.
Cats is based on the popular musical with songs written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which in turn was based on a whimsical book of poetry by T S Eliot. Cats the musical was always intended to be a fluffy bit of fun, more a bewildering display of athletic grace and lots of furry bodysuits than a comment about the imagined sociopolitical workings of cat society. Some of the criticism lobbed at the movie is unwarranted, if only for the fact that the same flaws were already encoded into the stage play.
That said, the main problem here is that Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper has chosen to amplify everything about the musical that didn’t work, and then destroy anything about it which was actually enjoyable. The changes made to the story, like a vague whiff of romance between Victoria and Mr Mistoffelees, were unnecessary. Even the new song penned by Lloyd Webber was less than purrfect, and a stark reminder that the man is in desperate need of a thesaurus. Really, whose idea was it to rhyme “wanted” with “wanted”?
With a seemingly neverending A-list cast anchored by some acting heavyweights, one might be forgiven for thinking that the acting could save this movie. Alas, this is not the case. Francesca Hayward’s balletic background serves her well while doing the big dance numbers, but she seems incapable of acting without keeping her mouth closed, and as for Taylor Swift’s cringey, awkward cameo as Bombalurina, the less said the better.
Rebel Wilson and James Corden are given fat jokes (again) to perform, while Jason Derulo plays a neutered Rum Tum Tugger that is anything but catnip to the ladies. Even the usually majestic Idris Elba is turned into some creepy, pantomime version of Black Panther as Macavity. The only ones who seemed to find their groove were Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, which is to be expected given their combined decades of experience on stage and screen.
The CGI, which horrified people when the movie trailer was first released, is actually even worse than you might think. An earlier version of the movie released in other countries had some glaring errors and green screens accidentally left in, and the studio had to make the unprecedented move to reissue corrected digital copies of the movie to cinemas within its first week of release.
The same bad CGI is also a problem that plagues the cast, who are all rendered into mutant humanoid hybrid cat people, and not so much skirting the line between reality and the uncanny valley as it is completely disregarding it. It’s like some pimply teenager tried to deepfake the entire movie by putting his friends’ faces on cats while using an ancient version of Photoshop on their laptop.
The resulting twitchy cat ears and seemingly random placing of fur on bodies (why do some cats have hair on their faces and some don’t?), combined with weird slinky movements that the actors have clearly painstakingly practised at cat bootcamp, all make for a deeply, deeply unnerving experience. I felt like my gaze couldn’t linger for too long on a character, one second too long and the hair on the back of my neck would stand. It was only with characters like Deuteronomy and Macavity who were styled in long coats that covered most of their bodies that were tolerable.
Even the music editing here leaves much to be desired. There was something off pacing and rhythm of the first few musical numbers, and the songs themselves are never quite given enough time to breathe. There also seemed to be the universal problem of the lack of enunciation from the cast, and by the time Jason Derulo was butchering the Rum Tum Tugger’s song, I was quite ready to walk out. But press on I did, for there was still That Song that could prove to be the saving grace of the entire movie.
Spoiler: “Memory” was really more of a meh-mory. Jennifer Hudson’s vocals were trumpeted as the big draw for this movie, but sadly she ended up sniffling through most of the number while overacting. And just as the big climax for “Memory” built up, the overproduced, synthesised music swelled and completely drowned her out. Guys, you had one job.
In the end, the biggest cinematic sin committed by the movie was the fact that it was not only unwatchable, but utterly boring. This was clearly a stage production that simply lost everything in its translation to the big screen. Hooper may have been aiming for an emotional catharsis with Cats, but I came very close to sinking into a catatonic state less than half an hour into the movie. As I exited the cinema, I overheard someone tell their friend, “It felt like my life was flashing before my eyes.”
There is no redeeming factor for the movie. None. I remember the time I knew what happiness was, and that time will now forever be etched in my brain as the pre-Cats movie era.
Score: 1/5 stars
Cats opens in cinemas 26 December, 2019 in Singapore, and 8 January, 2020 in Philippines.